Feds to see DPS in court

Talks break down on bilingual plan

Negotiations to overhaul Denver Public Schools’ bilingual program have broken down, and the district could lose $ 30 million in federal money as a result.

The U.S. Department of Education ruled two months ago that DPS is violating federal law by failing to adequately educate children with limited English skills. Now, government lawyers will take the case to court, where they could ask a federal judge to withhold the money as punishment or order a set of improvements to the bilingual program.

The loss of $ 30 million would be a huge blow to the district, which had a budget of about $ 379 million last year. Federally funded programs affected would include $ 15.7 million for low-income, at-risk students, $ 3.2 million for special education and $ 1.2 million for vocational training. Those programs would have to find other funding, be scaled back or eliminated altogether, officials said.

A meeting between the two sides was canceled Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, because officials there said prior meetings with DPS failed to yield significant changes.

“The school district has had ample time to provide us with an acceptable agreement and plan,” department spokesman Roger Murphy. “It’s time to move forward. We have worked with the district, but we can’t get a compliance agreement that satisfies the law.” DPS Superintendent Irv Moskowitz continued to defend the plan the district has proposed, which would provide bilingual education for three years, then move students to mainstream classes. About 13,000 DPS students are now in bilingual classes.

“We’re prepared to guarantee every child the appropriate level of education that he or she is capable of,” Moskowitz said. “We feel the Office of Civil Rights’ mandate to us stands right in the way of that philosophy.”

According to sources familiar with the negotiations, these were the major sticking points: The proper identification of students needing bilingual education – some students were misplaced in special education – and the monitoring of students in the program.

Hispanic community leaders, who have accused DPS of racism, blasted the school district again Wednesday.

“DPS is trying to get the whole thing dismantled, like they did busing, so they won’t have to be held accountable,” said Pam Martinez, co-chair of Padres Unidos, the parent group that filed a federal complaint against DPS three years ago. “This is consistent with the DPS’ unwillingness to comply with very basic federal law.”

At issue is how DPS should educate more than 13,000 students who speak little or no English.

The district currently doesn’t limit the time students can spend in bilingual education, but it wants the three-year time limit. Hispanic parent groups have
lobbied against it. Two months ago, the civil rights office ruled that the
DPS program was inadequate, criticizing the district for hiring bilingual teachers who weren’t fluent in Spanish and for inadequate curriculum and material.

But Moskowitz said DPS – not the federal government – should decide how to teach such students.

“If we were looking to duck this, we would have just given in,” Moskowitz said. “But we’d be doing a tremendous disservice to these children, parents and ultimately the community by retarding their progress in developing English-language skills.”

Bilingual education is being hotly debated nationwide. In California, there’s a movement to place a proposition on the November ballot to outlaw bilingual education in public schools.

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