AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit against Texas on Tuesday, alleging that Hispanic English language learners are having their civil rights violated by not receiving adequate instruction in high schools statewide.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a 27-page complaint on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens in the Eastern District of Texas. It argues that the state is violating the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, which says no state can deny students educational opportunities by failing to "take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation" in instructional programs.
The suit singles out Southwest Independent School District and North East Independent School District, both in San Antonio, but alleges similar problems statewide.
"It could have been hundreds" of school districts, said David Hinojosa, MALDEF's southwest regional counsel. "It would be an exception not to be sued."
The suit alleges that English language learner programs are underfunded and poorly monitored, and that instructors are often not properly trained. Hinojosa said some programs feature "pullout" initiatives where students are removed from regular classes for a few hours for extra English instruction — only to be thrown back into full-emersion courses afterward.
The suit says high school English language learners "across Texas continue to perform abysmally due to the grossly deficient language programs." It seeks a trial in federal court, though it's not yet clear when and where it would take place, Hinojosa said.
Named as chief defendant is Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams. Spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said Texas Education Agency attorneys had shared the complaint with the Texas attorney general's office.
"Many of the allegations have already been heard in federal court and defended by the state," Culbertson said. "We stand ready to defend them again."
Indeed, advocacy groups have been suing Texas on behalf of English language learners since 1973. Four years ago, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court reversed a lower court ruling challenging as deficient Texas' monitoring of instruction programs for English language learners — but also expressed concern about the "alarming performance" of such students.
Hinojosa said Tuesday's suit has a better chance of succeeding because it names individual districts, rather than simply state educational officials who aren't directly responsible for English language learner instruction, and because state monitoring controls that were still new in previous years have now been around long enough to demonstrate their ineffectiveness.
During the 2012-13 school year, the most recent data available, more than 863,000 students — more than 17 percent of the state's total public-school enrollment — were English language learners.
About 90 percent of Texas' English language learners are Hispanic. Though most are grade school-age or younger, the suit says many high school students continue to need English language training and that "these students' chances of succeeding in the mainstream programs and exiting the ELL programs diminish as they progress in grade level."