In recent comments to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), Education Law Center pointed out a glaring omission in the State’s bilingual education regulations.
ELC’s comments were filed in response to proposed amendments to current bilingual education rules. But the organization’s concerns about bilingual programs in charter schools pertain to both current and proposed regulations.
State rules governing bilingual education do not define the term “district boards of education” to include the board of trustees of a charter school. By way of comparison, the State’s special education regulations clearly include charter trustees in the definition of district boards.
Under State law, bilingual education programs must be offered in New Jersey’s public schools to ensure equal educational opportunity to children who are not proficient in English. All such children must receive English as second language (ESL) services, and public school districts serving 20 or more students in a particular language group must offer instruction in both English and the students’ native language.
Charter schools, which are public schools, have not been exempted from these provisions. In fact, charters are prohibited from discriminating in admission policies or practices on the basis of English language proficiency. In addition, the charter school law specifically charges these schools with establishing student bodies that represent a cross section of the school-aged population of the community in which the charter school is located.
According to the most recent data available from the NJDOE, New Jersey had 56,656 students classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) during the 2011-12 school year. Of those, 172 LEP students, or 0.3% of the total, were enrolled in charter schools. In that same year, LEP students represented only 1% of total charter school enrollment, as compared to 4% of enrollment in traditional public schools and much higher rates of enrollment in urban districts where charter schools are predominantly located. For example, the LEP rates in Newark (9%), Jersey City (10%) and Camden (12%) far outpace the charters in their districts, where the LEP rates range from 0 to 4%, and most schools serve no LEP students at all.
“In the case of English language learners, many charter schools in New Jersey serve student populations that are not comparable to those of their host districts,” said Elizabeth Athos, the ELC Senior Attorney who submitted the bilingual education comments. “In its regulations, NJDOE needs to clarify the obligation of charter schools to serve these students.”
ELC also commented on another significant aspect of the proposed bilingual education rules: the NJDOE’s proposed elimination of data collection requirements pertaining to LEP students. Although the Department claims that implementation of NJSMART, the State’s student level data management system, makes separate collection unnecessary, ELC has asked for assurance that all data required by the regulations proposed for repeal are currently being collected by NJSMART and will be accessible to the public – through OPRA requests or through the long promised “public portal” to NJSMART – at no additional cost.
The bilingual education rules are one of over fifteen chapters of administrative code currently subject to overhaul by Commissioner Christopher Cerf and the NJDOE. The public comment period for the proposed bilingual regulations ended on May 3.
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