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May 21, 2010

Bilingual Education, ESL Present Legal Issues, Challenges Nationwide

James C. Hanks, ABA Section of State and Local Government Education Committee Chair, led Steve Gonzales, of Phoenix School of Law, and Walter J. Harvey, of the Miami-Dade County School Board, in a panel discussion about bilingual education.

James C. Hanks (center), ABA Section of State and Local Government Education Committee Chair, led Steve Gonzales (right), of Phoenix School of Law, and Walter J. Harvey (left), of the Miami-Dade County School Board, in a panel discussion about bilingual education.

Whether guiding the audience through the legal maze of education statutes, or sharing real world experience with bilingual education program implementation, a panel of leading local and national experts at a recent ABA Section of State and Local Government Law conference offered varying perspectives on the practical implementation of bilingual education programs in their municipalities, as well as a basic legal background of this often controversial topic.

James C. Hanks of Ahlers & Cooney P.C., in Des Moines, Iowa, moderated the panel, “Current Issues in Bilingual Education and English as a Second Language Instruction,” that included Steve Gonzales, an associate professor of law and the director of Experiential Learning at Phoenix School of Law in Phoenix, and Walter J. Harvey, the lead attorney for the Miami-Dade County School Board in Miami. The program was part of the section’s spring meeting in Miami that focused on the latest legal issues of interest to municipal and state practitioners, including education issues. The section’s diversity committee and public education committee developed the program.

Walter J. Harvey of the Miami-Dade County School Board shares his successful experiences with bilingual education implementation.

Walter J. Harvey of the Miami-Dade County School Board shares his successful experiences with bilingual education implementation.

Noting his past experience with ESL programs for school districts in Iowa, Hanks spoke to the basic issues of compliance and implementation, as well as the growing need for bilingual education programs in Iowa. Although Iowa is not traditionally regarded as a state with bilingual education needs, Hanks discussed the shifting demographic changes in his home state as well as immigration trends. Hanks leads the K-12 education practice area for his law firm, which represents more than 150 Iowa school districts on a wide range of complex issues.

Gonzales briefly addressed the turmoil taking place in Arizona regarding the passage of its tough immigration bill. He noted that although these immigration enforcement efforts are very controversial, the legal basis for establishing bilingual education programs is rooted in The Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 and enforced by the federal government. The Act federally mandates that no state can deny equal educational opportunities. Gonzales noted that in general, the establishment of discriminatory results would be sufficient enough to be in violation of the law.

“The Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 is the most important act in the area of bilingual education and the basis for most litigation filed,” he said.

Gonzales explained the landmark court decisions that make up the body of bilingual education case history – from Meyer v. Nebraska, which struck down a state law prohibiting any teacher from teaching in a language other than English, to the most famous bilingual education decision, Lau v. Nichols, which was brought against the San Francisco Unified School District by the parents of nearly 1,800 Chinese students.

Harvey explained that in Florida the bilingual education movement started in the 1960s and that in Florida bilingual education is largely governed by the 1990 Consent Decree between the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Florida Department of Education. The consent decree is the framework for Florida’s compliance with federal and state laws regarding bilingual education.

“Here in Miami Dade, we are the fourth largest school district in the country. We are 60 percent Hispanic and over 100 languages are spoken in Miami Dade County schools. We have to do it well, or else we’re held accountable at the state level,” said Harvey.

Speaking to current challenges in bilingual program implementation, Harvey noted that meeting parental needs and wishes can often lead to litigation, especially when those parental wishes run counter to teacher recommendations. Speaking to the delicate balance between individual and parental rights, Harvey said that “we here in Miami Dade have developed a number of programs to balance these interests.”

“It’s interesting because the parent does have a say, but it’s not absolute,” explained Harvey. “Sometimes parents have the absolute right, and there is frustration from administrators.” However, the best interests of the child and their quality of learning is always the overriding goal, Harvey noted. “Florida provides a good balance of those interests and rights.”

Looking to meet the needs of ABA members who could not attend the conference, the section concurrently broadcast select conference programming via live teleconference. CLE materials from the virtual meeting are available free of charge to ABA State and Local Government members and are available for purchase for non-ABA members.

Access the Section of State and Local Government Law Virtual Spring Meeting website for more highlights.

Credentialed reporters may access ABA teleconferences free of charge. Please contact to access ABA Section of State and Local Government teleconferences.