A New Twist on the One Best System: Structured English Immersion Initiatives, Equal Opportunity, and Freedom to Learn

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Structured English immersion (SEI) initiatives represent an unprecedent­ed incursion on the traditional approach to making educational choices. Typically, states regulate public schools by mandating hours of instruction, teacher qualifications, subject-matter content, and accountability regimes; however, officials try not to micro-manage pedagogical methods. This re­luctance reflects a belief that learning is a complex process, with instructors retaining some discretion to tailor techniques to meet individual needs. Parents and students play an integral role by offering feedback on the success or failure of a school's curriculum and teaching. This ongoing dialogue ideally leads to responsive and effective instructional programs. SEI initiatives reject this framework by imposing statewide requirements that limit local flexibility. A single teaching method is prescribed for all English language learners (ELLs), and few exceptions are recognized. Despite this extraordinarily prescriptive approach to educational decision-making, le­gal challenges to SEI mandates have largely failed.

Although several states have passed SEI measures, I will focus primarily on the California statute because it has the longest history, has prompted the most extensive litigation and commentary, and is the story that I know best. After reviewing the key provisions of SEI initiatives, I will explore the limits of lawsuits that rely on a traditional civil rights approach that equates language with ascribed characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and national origin. Rooted in the history of school desegregation, these legal protec­tions apply only to those educational practices so arbitrary and capricious that they resemble the abuses associated with enforced racial separation. As a result, to be actionable, deficiencies in language instruction must be grave enough to deny children a meaningful opportunity to learn.

This traditional civil rights framework ignores significant differences be­tween language and race. Even if schools can aspire to colorblindness, it is nonsensical to assume that they can be deaf to linguistic diversity. In due process cases implicating parental rights, the law has recognized the impor­tance of language and culture to personal identity. Based on language's rel­evance in transmitting values and developing a sense of self, public schools should recognize a principle of equal liberties that protects a linguistic mi­nority parent's right to participate in shaping a child's education on the same terms as other parents do. SEI initiatives, which significantly limit a parent's voice in instructional decisions, violate this norm of basic fairness.

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Information Age Publishing, Inc.


Charlotte, NC


Grace P. McField

Book Title

The Miseducation of English Learners: A Tale of Three States and Lessons to be Learned

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