Austin students who don’t speak English well are getting shortchanged by public schools that would rather dump them into special education classes than deal with their language barriers, parents and teachers told civil rights investigators Tuesday.

The Office for Civil Rights, a division of the U.S. Department of Education, held a hearing attended by more than 100 people at the East Austin Multipurpose Center, 211 Comal St.

The investigators are in Austin this week to determine whether Austin schools are providing equal education to “limited English proficient” students.

Before coming to Austin, department officials described the visit as a “routine compliance review.” A spokesman also said the department had received several informal complaints about the school district’s bilingual services.

Tuesday’s meeting raised more complaints.

Yolanda Garcia, a doctoral student at the University of Texas who has supervised bilingual and special education student-teachers, said too many limited English proficient students are bused out of their neighborhoods because their neighborhood schools don’t offer bilingual education. State law requires school districts to offer bilingual education at any grade that has 20 or more students who speak a language other than English. The law doesn’t require that districts offer it at each school. The effect, speakers said, is that students get bused to certain schools.

Speakers told the investigators they are sick of the busing, that 5-year-olds are too young to be sent across town and that bilingual education should be offered in all schools where it is needed.

Garcia also said many students are placed in special education classes by schools that would rather not deal with their language barrier. “They are equating LEP with special education, and the two are not equal,” Garcia said.

Olga Colon, a bilingual teacher at Campbell Elementary School, said, “We don’t have enough books” for students who don’t speak English.

Amy Wongmok, chairwoman of the Asian American Alliance, said the problems aren’t limited to Spanish-speaking students. The school district also offers bilingual classes in Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean.

“We need to provide every child in the Austin community with equal education,” Wongmok said.

The hearing got off to a rough start after parents complained that no English-to-Spanish interpreter was provided by the very group that is investigating whether their children get equal service.

“The purpose of the meeting is not to provide information to the audience,” said Maria Bates, a Dallas-based branch chief for the Office for Civil Rights. “It’s to provide information for us.” Bates speaks Spanish.

After continued complaining, Bates asked someone to interpret for Spanish-speaking parents; those parents then congregated toward the back of the room. After the meeting, Bates said that, in light of the complaints, she might provide interpreters at future meetings. School district officials said they offered the Office for Civil Rights an interpreter for the meeting but the offer was rejected.

If the investigators find Austin schools aren’t providing adequate education to non-English speaking students, they can “negotiate” with the district to improve. Ultimately, if the department and district can’t reach an agreement, the district’s federal funds could be cut off, Bates said last week.

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