Federal justice and education officials sent school agencies across the nation a stern message on Wednesday, reminding them that they are mandated to adequately educate students whose first language isn't English.
The shot across the bow resounded loudly in California, home to more than a fifth of the nation's 5 million public school students categorized as English learners.
Under federal law, schools must identify students who need English language support in a timely fashion, provide qualified teachers, avoid unnecessary segregation of the students, and give parents information about services in their own languages.
Officials said demographics prompted them to issue guidelines for agencies to meet their legal obligations to English learners: four out of five states have seen increases in their English learner student populations.
However, failure by schools to provide all students with required language and academic services also pushed officials to issue what amounted to a warning from both the education and justice departments.
"Since fiscal year 2009, my office has received more than 475 complaints raising civil rights issues about English language learners or their parents," said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, during a media conference call.
She said 60 public school agencies across the country are currently under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights to determine if they broke the law on providing English learner services.
Thirteen of the agencies under scrutiny are in California, including school districts in Pasadena, Pomona, Ontario, Oxnard, Temecula, and San Bernardino.
Los Angeles Unified School District had been one of the districts investigated for its failure to properly serve all English learner students. In 2011, federal officials entered into an agreement with the school district to carry out improvements.
"We're pleased with the progress we see so far and obviously there's continuing work to be done," Lhamon said about LAUSD's effort. "And that's what we would expect at this stage in monitoring that resolution agreement."
LAUSD administrators did not respond to a request for comment.
The district and other California school agencies continue to struggle with transitioning students out of English learner programs, with many labeled as long-term English learners after failing to reach proficiency after years of schooling.
The Long Beach-based nonprofit Californians Together issued a report last month finding that three out of four English learner students grades 6 to 12 have been in school for seven years or more and still lack language skills for academic success.
In August, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that California officials violated the rights of English learners by failing to hold school districts accountable for providing mandated services and leaving 20,000 students languishing in public classrooms without help.
Anaheim Union High School District Superintendent Michael Matsuda said that 20,000 figure actually means the state is doing a good job because the number is a small portion of California's nearly 1.5 million English learner population.
"That shows that there's probably 90-something percent getting adequate services," Matsuda said.
In the Anaheim school district, 20 percent of students are English learners. He said the district is complying with the guidelines issued by federal officials, but the bigger challenge is preparing English learners for college and work.
"That means better writing, better literacy, better oral language development and we need to motivate," said Matsuda. "We need to make our content more relevant to the real world, to their world, so that they can get excited about learning and problem-solving."
But too many California school districts are letting English learners fall through the cracks, said UCLA education researcher Patricia Gandara. She welcomed the latest guidelines from federal officials.
"They are signaling to people that you really need to be doing this, and if you're not, then there need to be consequences for not doing it," Gandara said, including federal penalties.