English learners must be timely and accurately identified says the Supreme Court

Recently the Supreme Court ruled on a case that has impact for all school districts in the State of California – Lau v Nichols.  One of the outcomes was that school districts must have procedures in place to accurately and timely identify English learners.  The catchphrase is “accurately.”  It is important to note that it is not enough to simply lump a group of people together and call them English learners, whether you do it affirm or negate the primary language (just as in our cover picture).  Districts must take steps to determine if a person of the group actually is an English learner through some empirical measures such as surveys.

Below, I have redistributed Vanita Gupta’s email notice on the issue.  I would recommend reading the entire dear colleague letter and two fact sheets.

english learner identification

Dear Colleagues:

I write today to share an exciting development in Lau v. Nichols, the foundational Supreme Court case protecting the rights of English Learner (EL) students to participate meaningfully in their schools’ educational programs.  This week, the District Court for the Northern District of California approved a new Modified Consent Decree (MCD) that the Department of Justice, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), and the private plaintiffs, represented by the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, jointly filed in the Lau case.

This ground-breaking MCD requires SFUSD to implement comprehensive measures to ensure that the more than 16,000 EL students enrolled in its 105 regular education schools and five court and county (i.e., serving detained and incarcerated students) schools have equal educational opportunities.  Specifically, the MCD requires SFUSD to:  promptly identify, assess, and place EL students in effective EL programs; offer a range of EL programs and services to meet the needs of all EL students, including newcomers, students with disabilities, and long-term EL students; expand translation and interpreter services for Limited English Proficient (LEP) families; adequately train employees who serve EL students so that they can fulfill their roles; and conduct robust monitoring.  The MCD also protects the educational rights of SFUSD’s most at-risk and vulnerable EL students who are learning in alternative education or juvenile justice settings.  The MCD is available in SFUSD’s five most common languages.

This MCD is but one example of the department’s robust efforts to protect the rights of EL students and LEP families.  The department has been actively enforcing these rights in states and school districts throughout the country, including large urban districts like SFUSD, as well as suburban and rural ones.  In addition to these enforcement efforts, this past January, the department and the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) to remind state and local education agencies about their shared obligations to protect the rights of EL students and LEP families under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.  This guidance includes numerous examples to assist states and school districts in meeting these obligations.  It is summarized in two fact sheets that are translated into multiple languages, including a fact sheet specifically for LEP parents.

We encourage you to share this guidance and the good news about the Lau case with your communities.  We appreciate your ongoing efforts to assist LEP individuals so that they may participate fully in our nation’s schools and other public institutions. We look forward to a continuing dialogue with all of you as we work toward our shared goals.

Thank you,


Vanita Gupta

Civil Rights Division

U.S. Department of Justice

(202) 616-7334

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *