English Language Learners’ Bill of Rights passes Connecticut House

A proposal to enact an English Language Learners’ Bill of Rights passed the House Thursday in a 129-19 vote as part of an education omnibus bill that now heads to the Senate for final approval.

The legislation would require the Connecticut State Board of Education to draft a bill of rights to guarantee and safeguard the rights of parents and students who are multilingual learners. It outlines 15 different rights to a bilingual education, including the right to an interpreter.

“I believe that this is a very important provision that we have a real tremendous increase in our bilingual language learners in our school,” Education Committee Ranking Member Rep. Kathleen McCarty said. “It’s critical that they receive the bill of rights and that their parents are also brought in with the translation services so that they can help their students achieve academic success by understanding what’s being asked of them.”

In the last five years, the number of students identified as English language learners by CSDE has jumped nearly 30%, from 38,368 during the 2017-2018 session to 49,833 this year.

Education Committee Chair Rep. Jeff Currey said the bill of rights would ensure that parents can request translation services for communications with teachers, board of education meetings, and their members.

In written testimony, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education said that the organization “believes implementation of the section of the bill dealing with translators would be difficult because of the numerous languages spoken by students and their parents and the lack of certified translators.”

CABE cited a 2019 CSDE report, which found that among high school English language learners, 77% percent spoke Spanish and 14% spoke either Portuguese, Creole-Haitian, Arabic, Mandarin or French. The remaining 9% of English Learners spoke one of 89 other languages.

“There may be few or no certified bilingual and/or English as a Second Language (ESL) staff who speak these languages in Connecticut,” CABE said.

When asked about language options, Currey said school districts could use an online translation service at a cost of $125 to $175 an hour.

“For a five-hour board of ed meeting, that could be nearly a thousand dollars.” Rep. Tammy Nuccio said. “They have board of ed meetings, I know my towns’ are every other week, so that could be a rather large cost for a municipality.”

Nuccio, who voted against the bill, said that she could not support the financial burden the new requirements placed on municipalities.

“I’ve been very forthright since being here that I just don’t feel comfortable voting on anything that’s going to be an additional financial mandate on the boards of ed because it just puts more pressure at the local level. And all I hear from every superintendent I have is ‘No more mandates,’” Nuccio said.

Nuccio also raised concern with a section of a bill that would provide a right to non-English class instruction in cases where 20 multilingual learners speak the same dominant language.

“I’m kind of worried that we would have dual classes going all the way from kindergarten through graduation, throughout the whole process, without having a solid plan in place to make sure these children are also learning English, which is the primary language of this country,” Nuccio said. “So I’m a little, again, concerned with the cost on that piece there.”

The bill of rights proposal was supported by Gov. Ned Lamont, CSDE and the State Child Advocate in addition to dozens of parents and students with a native language other than English who say that the legislation will better support multilingual learners, remove barriers to parent engagement, and increase equity and inclusion.

Many parents testified that the current lack of translation services for conferences, board of education meetings, and school communications created obstacles that impede education, reduce opportunities and even endanger well-being.

“A couple months ago the school sent me a document in English and I did not know what it said, it was that my daughter could not see well and that I should take her to the doctor. Several days passed until someone translated the document for me and I was able to take action. In the end my girl was diagnosed with astigmatism,” Flor Callazos, a mother of a 6-year-old student in Trumbull wrote. “I am here supporting the approval of the bill for parents of English learners since all mothers deserve that our children’s important documents be sent in our language, especially if it concerns their health.”

The new bill of rights will additionally alleviate the strain on students.

“I grew up as a first-generation immigrant, and having to translate my own parent-teacher conferences and every permission slip I was sent home with is a memory I cannot describe as fond,” Cristian Corza of Hartford said in written testimony. “No student should have to be faced with that burden, and parents should have every tool at their disposal to stay involved in their child’s education.”

“Access to quality education is a right all children should have regardless of the language they speak. Clear rights help our community know where they can turn for support and guidance,” Corza added. “By guaranteeing parental rights in ELL students’ education, children will improve in school; parents will be able to advocate for their child’s needs and ensure they receive the best education.”