A Civil Rights Issue
In a qualitative comparative case study, “Breaking One Law to Uphold Another,” Kangas investigated how and why schools misinterpreted federal laws and policies, and as a result, were providing ELs with disabilities with only one set of services—either special education or English language supports—rather than the dual services to which they are legally entitled.
Language education and special education laws and policies are rooted in the civil rights movement and the disability rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, both of which sparked additional protections in the education of historically vulnerable groups, Kangas notes.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate public education that is tailored to their learning needs. One element includes IEPs, or Individual Education Programs, which specify the services that students must receive and their educational goals. As a measure of accountability, schools are legally obligated to provide the services and supports outlined in the IEPs.
Bilingual education is rooted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of their race, color and national origin. In a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Lau v. Nichols, the justices found that a school system’s failure to provide ELs with language services had denied them a meaningful education and violated the Civil Rights Act. A subsequent court case established a measure of adequate services for ELs.
As part of her study, Kangas spent six months observing first- and third-graders, interviewing teachers and administrators and collecting documents at two sites in the northeastern United States—a suburban elementary school with a large population of students with disabilities, and a bilingual public charter school serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Kangas addressed several questions: How and why are schools not complying with federal policies and laws in service provision for ELs with disabilities? How does federal policy for ELs with disabilities change as it filters down through layers of the education system? In what ways do educators’ beliefs influence policy interpretations and implementations? How do policy interpretations and implementations reinforce intersectionality?
Kangas found that educators—even those at a school committed to bilingual language—considered special education laws more potent than English learner laws and policies. That stemmed from the educators’ misunderstanding of the very laws and policies enacted to protect ELs with disabilities.
“Services targeting disabilities were at the top of the hierarchy, whereas EL services were at the bottom—a phenomenon I refer to as a hierarchy of services,” writes Kangas. “When a student required both special education and EL services, special education was perceived by educators, including administrators, as legally powerful and therefore obligatory, where EL services were interpreted as mere policy recommendations.”
The study is the first to uncover why schools haven’t adhered to federal education laws that require ELs with disabilities to receive both language assistance and disability-related services.
Special education law leaves little room for interpretation, Kangas says. Teachers and administrators oft pointed to students’ IEPs as the principal reason that special education services took precedence over language assistance. “The IEP is a contract that the parents sign, and if we don’t follow it, there could be legal troubles,” one teacher told her. “And of course, a school doesn’t want to have the legal troubles.”
In contrast, the educators candidly expressed their beliefs that English learner services were derived from guidelines that were subject to interpretation, not from enforceable laws. Both schools also were insufficiently staffed for EL services. “Having the status of guidelines,” Kangas says, “EL services were viewed as pliable and ultimately optional.”
With educators inadvertently breaking one law to uphold another, Kangas assigns some responsibility to the legal and political systems of accountability in education matters. If schools fail to provide special education services outlined in students’ IEPs, for example, it could result in legal action in the form of due-process hearings, mediation and formal complaints. Kangas notes that the National Center on Dispute Resolution in Special Education recorded nearly 5,000 written complaints, about 8,500 mediation requests and 14,300 due-process complaints in 2014, underscoring that the education context for students with disabilities is highly litigious.
In comparison, the legal recourse for ensuring language support for ELs “is stifled by a nebulous accountability system” that rests heavily on a parent or other stakeholder filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Kangas says. However, she says, earlier research has shown that parents of English learners often don’t have the linguistic skills in English and knowledge of the school system to advocate for their children.
“As a result of an ambiguous EL policy and an arduous complaint system, ELs with disabilities experience a marginalization that is both legally and structurally driven,” Kangas says.
She advocates, in part, for teacher education programs that bolster the message that EL education is a civil rights issue. She also argues for policymakers and educational agencies to establish stronger protections for English learner policies, including by mandating that students’ IEPs reflect their English language needs.
Complying with federal laws should not be the only reason for educators to provide ELs with disabilities with dual services, Kangas says. “Schools simply fulfilling the technicalities of the law to avoid punitive actions miss the ethical responsibilities of educators to the children they teach,” she says. “ELs with disabilities need both educational services to advance in their academic and language learning.
“Without EL services, in particular, these students will likely be unable to attain proficiency in the language, which will likely inhibit their reclassification and academic trajectories. However, by providing dual services, schools can begin to educate ELs with disabilities as whole people with multiple, intersecting needs.”