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English-Only Instruction in Public Schools

Across the nation, English-only instruction in public schools has become a focal point. Our school systems have a growing number of English language learners (ELLs). How do education agencies and school administrators decide what language programs to offer? The answers lie within a mix of federal law, state laws, and the goals of each school system.

ELL students may get labeled as limited English proficient (LEP). These students may face language barriers that can hinder their academic achievement. The U.S. Department of Education and local education agencies offer special education for these students. They offer English language development programs to cater to these students' specific needs.

These are complex questions that have no easy answers. This article briefly overviews the English-only public school debate and focuses on current laws and policies. We also offer information for consulting a lawyer. Visit FindLaw'sFindLaw's School Curriculum Basics section for more articles and resources.

The Debate Over English-Only Instruction

English is important in the U.S. school system. Yet, many students with diverse national origins enroll every school year. The decision to use English-only or multilingual instruction programs is a topic of much debate. Supporters of English-only instruction believe it speeds up English language acquisition. This ensures that all students meet grade-level English language proficiency.

Supporters of English-only laws argue bilingual education programs do students a disservice. Supporters believe that allowing bilingual education programs inhibits the students' learning. They believe students could learn English more quickly without bilingual programs. These supporters may believe children rely too heavily on their native languages in class. Supporters may also think that children are more likely to intermingle with each other if only one language exists.

Advocates for multilingual programs believe in biliteracy. They believe in the benefits of maintaining students'students' native language while learning English. They argue that it is inconclusive whether English-only instruction helps students learn best. There is no evidence this method is more effective than bilingual education programs.

Supporters of bilingual programs believe that these programs help immigrant students assimilate better. They believe that if students who speak only a little or no English are in the same class as those who only speak English, everyone might get frustrated. Some also wonder if teaching only in English makes immigrant students feel a loss of heritage.

English as the Official Language

The U.S. does not have an official national language. Some states have declared English their official language, but English isn't adopted nationwide. Over 30 states have passed laws designating English as the official language. A few states have further required their public schools to teach only in English.

Some believe establishing English as the official language would standardize school curriculums. These people also believe English as the official language would help bridge language gaps. But, others see value in a multilingual society. Here, schools encourage students to master English while honing skills in their native languages.

English-Only Education Laws

There are important laws that protect students who are learning English. Two main laws are the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These laws ensure that state boards of education and local schools treat every student fairly. They establish that all students should have the same chance to learn, no matter their language background. These laws guide schools on how to help students who speak other languages.

One landmark Supreme Court Case is Lau v. Nichols (1974). In this case, the court said schools must provide language help. Students with limited English skills should get language instruction help. Schools must provide these education services to students.

In different states, the rules for English learners can change. Some states require students to join ESL (English as a second language) classes. Other states offer biliteracy programs. These programs teach students in English and their native language. By doing this, students can learn more and meet graduation requirements to get a high school diploma.

Statewide English-Only Education Laws

Only a few states have passed statewide English-only education laws. But other states have failed in their efforts. In California, for example, voters passed Proposition 127 in 1998. This law required all public school instruction to be in English. It shifted away from providing bilingual education programs. Yet, in 2016, Californians voted in favor of Prop. 58. This law repealed the English-only instruction mandate of Prop. 127. This allowed schools more flexibility to establish bilingual and multilingual programs for students.

In 2000, Arizona passed Prop. 203. This law repealed the state's bilingual education system with a structured English immersion program. The policy requires ELLs be in English-only classrooms. They get taught almost only in English. The Arizona law also contains a provision that allows school districts to deny certain waivers. Schools can deny requests for bilingual instruction without explanation.

Two years later, Massachusetts approved Question 2. This law repealed the state's transitional bilingual education. The law is now codified in the Massachusetts General Laws under Ch. 71A § 4. It replaced bilingual education programs with sheltered English immersion programs. Non-English-speaking students are in English-only classrooms. The goal is for these children to learn English before transitioning to regular classrooms.

In 2012, Oklahoma enacted the "Official English Language Implementation Act." This law focused primarily on making English the state's official language and included a provision that schools would only teach in English.

The area of English-only instruction is constantly evolving. Many states have seen pushes and pulls between these laws. Demographic changes, educational research, and public opinion often influence these shifts.

English-Language Learners With Disabilities

Navigating education for students with disabilities presents its own set of challenges. When combined with English-only instruction, it becomes even more intricate. Schools must support EL students with disabilities. Education policymakers design systems that cater to these students' unique special needs.

In many schools, the EL program is primarily for English-speaking development. These programs might focus on acquiring language skills needed for academic success. But, for students with disabilities, schools can tailor these programs.

For instance, consider a student with a hearing impairment who speaks Spanish primarily. This student will have a different educational journey than English-speaking students. The journey will be different even if the students have the same disability. Both the language barrier and the disability present distinct challenges.

Consulting With an Attorney

If you have questions about English-only instruction laws, an attorney can help. They can help you understand the law and how it may affect you or your child. An attorney can explain your options if you want your child to have instruction in another language. They can also help you prepare a waiver petition. Find an attorney experienced in education law through FindLaw.

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