Rhode Island Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island have today filed a lawsuit in R.I. Superior Court challenging a decision issued this month by the Council of Elementary and Secondary Education (CESE) that upholds a method of providing services to English Language Learners (EL) that the two groups claim clearly violates federal and state law and significantly shortchanges the educational rights of EL students.

In essence, the lawsuit charges, the Council and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) have interpreted the state’s regulations governing EL instruction to provide less support to those students than federal law itself requires. The suit was filed a week after the CESE rejected a request from 15 organizations to amend its regulations to bar this type of inadequate service to EL students.

The case dates back to 2016, when RILS and the ACLU-RI filed an administrative complaint with RIDE on behalf of parents of English Language Learners in Providence whose children had been provided with few or no direct services by a certified ESL teacher. Instead, Providence claimed that these children were being adequately served by general and special educators who consulted with an EL certified teacher as infrequently as once every two months and for no specified amount of time. Thus, a passing conversation in the hallway that lasted less than a minute could suffice for EL consultation for a two month period.  According to the lawsuit, the “Consultation model” used by the school district further discriminates against children with disabilities by denying them even the less-than-adequate EL services provided to students without disabilities.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) independently concluded that  Providence’s “Consultation model” was “educationally unsound” and invalid under federal laws, but both RIDE and the CESE refused to take that determination into account in deciding that use of the Model was lawful under state regulations. 

In the lawsuit filed this week, RILS attorney Veronika Kot and ACLU of RI volunteer attorney Ellen Saideman assert that CESE’s decision is “incompati[ble] with the plain language of its regulations, with federal law as interpreted by the Department of Justice, and with the requirements of nondiscrimination against children with disabilities who are also ELs, as contained in the RI EL Regs themselves and in both state and federal law.” Calling the CESE decision “patently arbitrary” and “clearly erroneous,” the suit asks the court to overturn the Council’s decision.

Rhode Island Legal Services attorney Veronika Kot said today: “The Council’s decision that providing English Learners with almost no services is consistent with State Regulations is simply incorrect. It leaves English Language Learners throughout Rhode Island vulnerable to being shortchanged, with no remedy under state law and no real access to an education. At a time when resources are strained and the need for virtual learning presents additional potential barriers for English Learners, the rights of these at-risk students must be protected.”

ACLU of RI volunteer attorney Ellen Saideman added, “The Consultation model is indefensible.  Providence EL students deserve quality EL instruction from EL qualified teachers.”