A U.S. Department of Justice memo, formally released yesterday as a result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of RI and RI Legal Services (and also obtained independently by the Boston Globe), contains a blistering critique of the Providence school district’s (PSD) treatment of English language learner (EL) students.  But, the ACLU and RILS said today, release of the memo does more than document a systematic violation of EL students’ rights by the PSD. Specifically, it also highlights a blatant abuse of the Access to Public Records Act by the Providence school district, and underlines the RI Department of Education’s (RIDE) own failure to require PSD’s compliance with federal and state law obligations regarding the legal rights of EL students.

As for the violation of EL students’ rights, virtually every sentence of the 18-page DOJ memo lays out in devastating detail the extensive scope of the school district’s failure to provide EL students the education to which they are entitled under federal law. But one paragraph in the memo sums up the breadth of those violations:

“[The conditions constituting violations of federal law] include the District’s: 1) placement of hundreds of ELs in schools without EL program services without voluntary and informed waivers of service; 2) use of an educationally unsound EL program; 3) inadequate implementation of several of its EL programs; 4) failure to staff its EL programs with qualified teachers; 5) unnecessary segregation of some ELs; 6) insufficient materials at certain schools; inadequate principal training; 8) failure to identify all ELs in a timely way; 9) inadequate communications with LEP parents; 10) failure to provide ELs with equal opportunities to participate in specialized programs; 11) inappropriate criteria for exiting ELs from EL programs and inadequate monitoring of exited ELs; and 12) failure to properly evaluate its EL programs for effectiveness. Together, these practices prevent EL students from learning English and accessing their other core subjects, setting them up to struggle and too often to fail.”

But, the ACLU and RILS said today, the release of the memo actually highlights two other very disturbing concerns: PSD’s misuse of the state’s open records law, and RIDE’s explicit failure to ensure that EL students in fact receive the mandated supports they need to succeed in school.

1. Access to Public Records: In April, RILS filed an open records request with PSD for a copy of the DOJ memo released yesterday. Citing a host of dubious exemptions in the Access to Public Records Act, including a claim that the document was protected by attorney-client privilege, PSD refused to release the document. Two weeks ago, the ACLU and RILS filed an open records lawsuit to obtain the document, and six months after refusing to turn it over, the PSD released the document yesterday without a fight. ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said today: “The school district knew this was a public record and deliberately withheld it from public scrutiny until a lawsuit was filed against them. School officials were well aware they had no reason to withhold the document, but did so for as long as they could in order to hide the DOJ’s devastating findings from the public. This was a shameful and blatant misuse of the open records law.”

2. RIDE’s failure to protect the rights of EL students in Providence. More than three years ago, the ACLU and RILS filed an administrative complaint against PSD for its violation of EL students’ rights. Among other violations, the complaint targeted the illegality of PSD’s “Consultation Model” of teaching EL students, a model that provided virtually no direct services to students by EL certified teachers. In March of 2019, however, former RIDE Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner upheld PSD’s use of this model – six months after the DOJ’s settlement agreement with the Providence school district had determined that the Consultation Model was “educationally unsound,” violated the rights of EL students, and could not continue to be used. The former Commissioner’s decision intentionally ignored the DOJ’s ruling and found that the Consultation Model “does not violate the Rhode Island Regulations.” ACLU and RILS appealed that ruling to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, where the appeal is pending. 

RILS attorney Veronika Kot said today: “The just-released DOJ memo documents in devastating detail how ELs in Providence were systematically deprived of the educational supports they need, including being provided virtually no meaningful services and no contact with teachers certified to provide such specialized services. The predictable effects of this are well-documented in the recent Johns Hopkins report on the Providence School District, which highlights the academic shortchanging and abysmal outcomes for ELs in Providence. It is high time for the State Department of Education to exercise its responsibility to ensure that ELs receive the full scope of supports guaranteed to them by law and which they urgently need in order to have an equal opportunity for educational success.” 

RILS and the ACLU plan on pursuing their appeal of the March RIDE ruling and expressed hope that release of the DOJ’s detailed findings would prompt a quick reversal of the former Commissioner’s decision by the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, so that EL students in Providence can finally receive the full scope of support to which they are entitled under both state and federal law.