District Obligations to ESL Students


AdobeStock_88422116-349308-edited.jpegImmigration is changing education in the United States.  Public school districts are seeing increased enrollments of English Second Language (ESL) students, and the upward trend is expected to continue. As these trends have shifted, so too has the federal government’s role, with mandates that make school districts responsible for providing the best educational services possible to one and all.

Here is an overview of what districts need to know concerning this evolving issue.

Understanding fund distribution

Like many things in education, the federal government exercises its oversight in education through the monies it disburses at both state and district levels.  

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 has been reauthorized a number of times — most recently in 2015 as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). One section of this law, known as Title 1, allocates funds to schools and districts in which children from low-income families make up at least 40% of enrollment, and is designed to help low-performing and at-risk students. In addition, Title III of the ESEA provides funding designed to help ESL students and immigrants attain English proficiency and succeed academically.

Schools that receive Title I funds include mandates that require administration to:

  • Annually assess the English language proficiency of ESL students
  • Notify parents of their child’s status as an English Learner (EL)
  • Track annual progress of the ESL subgroup
  • Avoid discrimination in any way

If a school district receives Title III funds, it must put them toward ESL instructional and professional development programs that:

  • Are high-quality and evidence-based
  • Support ESL students to speak, listen, read, and write English
  • Provide tools to help meet challenging academic standards

Even districts committed to equitable, high-quality education for every student can lose sight of the federal government's regulations. Doing so puts the district at risk for scrutiny. Through communication and careful planning, every student in the district can access the resources necessary to succeed.

The history behind ESL guidelines

As the state of immigration and English proficiency in the United States changes, court cases related to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act have established important precedents to further guide how districts treat ESL students. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs receiving federal financial assistance (like Title I or Title III programs).

One of the most significant precedents is the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1981’s Castañeda v. Pickard. In that ruling, the Court provided a three-point test to evaluate the adequacy of a district’s ESL program:

  1. The district’s ESL program must be recognized by ESL education experts as a legitimate approach to language access.
  2. When a specific approach is selected, the district needs to provide adequate resources to implement that approach.
  3. The district’s ESL program must be evaluated for efficacy on an ongoing basis. If students are not making progress, changes must be made.

While Casteñeda v. Pickard was an important step in clarifying a district’s position in educating ESL students, there is also some ambiguity in the language. In 1990, the Department of Education sought to clarify some of Casteñeda’s mandates with “The Provision of an Equal Educational Opportunity to Limited-English Proficient Students”, which further outlines equal access compliance and schools’ civil rights obligation.

With this guidance, the Department of Education clarified the process for maintaining an equitable, effective, and federally compliant ESL program even further.

Steps to maintaining a compliant ESL program

The process involves five steps for districts to follow as they move forward with developing successful, compliant ESL programs for their students:

  1. The district must develop an effective, research-based ESL program. This program needs to be detailed in writing, including how ESL students are identified and what types of strategies are being used.
  2. The district needs to have a process to identify ESL students. Once identified, Title I specifies that the district has 30 days to notify parents of identification and/or placement of the student in an ESL program (14 days from placement in the EL program if the student enrolls in the middle of the school year).
  3. The district needs to allocate adequate resources to their program. These resources must be expressly identified, since certain sources of federal money cannot be used on a district’s “core” ESL program — only supplemental strategies and tools.
  4. The district must have English Language Proficiency (ELP) standards that are used to measure progress toward and attainment of English proficiency. An annual ELP assessment is required.”
  5. Finally, as in Casteñeda principle #3, the district must have benchmarks in place to monitor the success of the program. If inadequate, modifications must be made. Further, Titles I and III call for tracking of and reporting on students once they exit the ESL program, to make sure they remain successful.

As the country’s population continues to move more toward a more diverse patchwork of cultures and languages, these obligations to our English learning families will become more important — and will require more resources from districts.

To learn more about district obligations to ESL students, download our ebook.

Creating a compliant parent communication strategy in multiple languages

Dr. David Holbrook

About The Author

Dr. David Holbrook is a nationally recognized leader in federal programs administration and monitoring with expertise in Title I, Title III, Native American Education, and Federal Programs. Dr. Holbrook has also worked as a consultant with Title III of the US Department of Education and now serves as Executive Director, Federal Compliance and State Relationships with TransAct.