The Georgia legislature’s consideration of expanding the right to private school tuition for a new class of students – those refugee children who have not yet learned the English language – is a truly bad idea. The House-passed H.B. 296 by Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, wrongly stigmatizes a population of kids who are not “disabled,” puts a high burden on taxpayers and may well be illegal under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

English Language Learners (ELL), mainly new refugees to the U.S., are students who start school with a temporary lack of English language proficiency. Temporary is the key word here. It is a condition that is rapidly overcome, especially in states like Georgia with English immersion programs. Results in other states with immersion programs, i.e., California, Arizona, Massachusetts, report a one to two year period for mastering our language.

Before the U. S. Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act in 1968, there was no requirement of special help for non-English speaking children. These children entered our public schools without knowing enough English to do regular classroom work in English.

In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lau v. Nichols that schools must give special help to these children to learn English as quickly as possible to be able to achieve their best in school, alongside their English-speaking classmates.

Neither states nor the federal government ever classified these children as “disabled.” To make such a designation would be an insult to all English Language Learners, relegating them to a category that is totally inaccurate. Instituting a right for English Language Learners to be granted private school tuition is an outrageous expansion of special education entitlement.

First and foremost, public school students with disabilities are required by law to be given special education services in their own school districts. If these special provisions are deemed to be insufficient after a period of time, then an out-of-district assignment to a private school may be considered. This step is not taken too quickly or lightly as it places large financial costs per student on a school district.

Full disclosure: I was director of a program for English language learners in the Newton, Massachusetts, public schools over a ten-year period. I faced this very situation. Newton has a reputation as one of the dozen most academically successful public school districts in the country. Newton’s programs for English language learners have earned praise for decades.

The idea was proposed that we put the Newton ELL program for recent immigrants under the Special Education Department for students with disabilities. I argued strongly and persuasively that it would send a very negative message to the school community and to the families of these children.

In the uninformed, clueless days before the needs of non-English speakers came to be understood and provided for, immigrant children in Texas were classified EMR, educably mentally retarded, a label that would be indefensible today. It was wrong then, and it would be doubly wrong today.

H.B. 296 is very bad legislation that should not be passed by the Georgia legislature. It would shame the state and its education establishment. It’s best to stop this ill-advised scheme from going forward.

The author is a consultant to school districts and state and federal governments on English Language Learner education, is the chairwoman of ProEnglish and the author of American Immigrant: My Life in Three Languages (2010).


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