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State Board Refines Rules, Updates Terminology for Bilingual Programs

One key change: Families of bilingual students will be told their kids need English-language-learner services within 30 days

bilingual classroom

Forty years ago, New Jersey was among the first states to pass a law requiring public schools to serve students whose first language wasn’t English.

Since then, there’s been no lack of debate on how to best to do that.

There also hasn’t been any lessening of the number of such students; they increased by close to 20 percent in just two years, reaching nearly 70,000 in 2014.

The State Board of Education is revisiting the issue this summer, as it considers changes to the administrative code that details how the law is carried out.

Thus far there’s been little discord -- and plenty to talk about, with more conversations surely to come when the code come up for first discussion and another public hearing at the board’s next meeting on July 8.

First presented this spring, the code changes being proposed by the Christie administration are both semantic and substantial. Several of them came out of the task force of three years ago that sought to ease some of the administrative burdens on districts.

One of that report’s most controversial recommendations was to eliminate the requirement that districts file for approval their bilingual education plans every three years. The administration sought a code change in 2012, but did not include it in this latest proposal.

The cornerstone of New Jersey’s 1975 law is the requirement that schools provide bilingual programs when enrollment of English-language-learners in any one language exceeds 20 children.

But doing that can mean interpreting a sometimes-arcane maze of requirements, even in what to call the students.

Under the proposed code, the official term to describe these students would change from “limited English proficient” (LEP) to ELL, a terminology shift that has taken place nationwide.

And among the more substantive changes is a proposal to tighten the rules on when families are notified that a child needs ELL services to no more than 30 days. Another is to add charter schools to the official definition of schools falling under the code.

Some advocates have pressed the state to consider adding still more protections for both students and families.

Testifying last month was Jessica Levin, a lawyer with the Education Law Center, the Newark-based group, who said one of the key concerns is district communication with parents.

She raised the point that such communication -- whether via a translator or using non-English texts -- is critical with families who may not have ELL children but are are only learning English themselves. Such language gaps can be significant in the case where families need to communicate with the schools, such as with special education or other extraordinary circumstances.

“When the letter of the law protects only the parents of ELLs, thousands of New Jersey LEP parents are denied full participation in their children’s education,” she told the board.

In general, Levin also said the regulations should be more explicit in requiring the state to monitor and enforce the proper notification of families. One proposal is to create a complaint investigation process for such families, similar to that for special education.

“My work providing legal assistance to ELLs and LEP parents has revealed numerous instances of districts failing, in particular, to comply with the most basic notification and translation rights contained in the administrative code,” she said.

Levin said it can come down to the state’s own capacity to educate districts and enforce its regulations.

“Although New Jersey regulation already provides some excellent protections to ELLs and parents, and we are hopeful that they will be amplified, these rights are meaningless if districts are unaware of or unwilling to abide by them,” she said.

So far, the board has heard little disagreement with the changes, according to president Mark Biedron. But as with special-education code, even what appear to be minor additions or omissions can be significant to families and educators.

“From what I asked the department, I’m told most of these changes are just clarifications or getting things in line with various statute or new definitions,” Biedron said yesterday. “But I realize some of these details can be very important.”

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