Denver Public Schools is in for a long and expensive fight against the federal government over its bilingual plan if another school district’s similar struggles are any indication.
The San Juan School District in Blanding, Utah, is one of the few school districts in the West that has faced enforcement of a bilingual plan by the Department of Justice, federal officials said.
After three years of preliminary litigation and about $ 500,000 in court costs, the San Juan district recently avoided a trial and settled with a group of Navajo parents who sued the district. As in Denver, the parents claimed that San Juan schools did not adequately teach students with limited English skills.
Unlike the Denver situation, where the debate involves Spanish-speaking students, the controversy in Utah centered on the Navajo language.
“We were spending more in legal fees than on textbooks and other materials,” said Gary Cameron, superintendent of San Juan schools, a district of about 3,500 students, many of whom speak little or no English. “In the end, we just couldn’t see spending any more taxpayer money. And we would rather have educators resolve this, as opposed to a judge mandating a resolution.”
Navajo parents and San Juan officials met for several months, held community meetings, formed a joint committee and were able to work out their differences, avoiding a court showdown.
But that doesn’t appear to be how things will unfold in Denver – at least not right now.
DPS Superintendent Irv Moskowitz said he will do whatever it takes – for as long as it takes – to fight the federal government. By his reasoning, nobody should tell his district how to implement a bilingual program, even if the federal government says DPS is violating federal law.
“Our stance is a firm one,” Moskowitz said. “We truly object to any arbitrary gate that is put up in front of kids that they can’t get through unless they achieve certain levels on standardized tests.”
Last-ditch negotiations between DPS and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights broke down last week. Now the Justice Department will decide whether to take action, which would mean taking DPS to court and possibly yanking up to $ 30 million in federal money.
“In our review process, we will decide whether or not to proceed in federal court,” Justice Department spokeswoman Lee Douglass said. “But we can’t speculate as to how long something like this will take.”
The Department of Education ruled two months ago that DPS is violating federal law by failing to adequately educate students with limited English skills. It appeared then that the government and DPS were close to an agreement. But the two sides could not agree on several points, such as how long a student should receive bilingual instruction.
Denver school officials have proposed putting students in the program for three years, then transitioning them to mainstream classes. DPS says it would provide safety nets for the students, including monitoring student progress to see if more instruction in Spanish is needed.
But federal officials and the Hispanic parents who have sued DPS contend that three years of bilingual instruction is not enough. DPS argues that unlimited bilingual classes are too costly and discourage non-English speaking students from mastering English.