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BPS defies federal court order for English learners, civil rights group says

A student raised his hand in a kindergarten Sheltered English Immersion program at the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston.Lane Turner

Boston Public Schools recently stopped complying with a decades-old federal court order related to how it supports English language learners, refusing to allow a designated monitor to review the district’s finances to ensure it is dedicating an appropriate amount of resources to these students, according to an attorney for the group.

The federal order, issued in 1994, compels BPS to consult with Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy, or META, over its spending of federal Title I dollars, which are dedicated to schools with large percentages of low-income students. The order was the result of a class action lawsuit brought by META in the early 1990s over the district’s failure to adequately support its growing English learner population.

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BPS has since been required to spend a share of its Title I funding on extra support for English learners proportionate to their share of the district’s overall population. Each year since the order, META, a national civil rights group, has served as the court’s watchdog.

That is, until now.

“We’re cut off,” said META attorney Roger Rice. “We don’t know what’s happening.”

The district also has refused to allow the group to visit schools to hear from staff about whether they’re able to meet the English learners’ needs, a practice it had been doing for decades.

Though the order remains active, BPS has been icing out META for roughly a year, Rice said, refusing to meet with META or meet other mandates prescribed by the court.

BPS initially did not answer questions on whether it developed its Title 1 budget in consultation with META or provided the group with school-level monitoring checklists to determine whether spending has been meeting students’ needs, as it must according to the order. Instead, Max Baker, a district spokesperson, replied via e-mail: “Questions regarding the District’s compliance with this Court Order are more appropriately addressed directly between the parties.”

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Baker later said the district “has and will continue to comply” with the order, including the requirement to consult with META, but BPS would not say when that would happen. By Tuesday, Rice said he had still not heard from BPS.

The federal court order represents just one layer of scrutiny the district finds itself under, due to its consistently poor record of supporting English learners. BPS also is party to an English learner settlement agreement with the federal justice and education departments, the result of a 2010 investigation that found the district was violating students’ civil rights by failing to provide them with specialized instruction.

Despite the increased oversight, the district’s language support services have continued to lag. In its 2022 districtwide review, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education determined hundreds of English learners were being provided with low-quality instruction or were denied required instruction altogether. The state, which in part blamed the problem on rapid turnover of central office administration, ordered BPS to expand access to native language instruction under its systemic improvement plan, approved in June.

BPS currently serves more than 14,500 students still learning English — or about 30 percent of its overall enrollment. Collectively, the children speak more than 70 different native languages.

Among the most vulnerable of the district’s students, English learners consistently trail their peers — and, at times, by staggering amounts. Ninety percent of fourth-grade English learners who took the state-mandated math exam in spring 2022 either failed or only partially met expectations, according to state data. In reading, the rate was nearly 100 percent.

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Title I money must be used for materials or services beyond what is minimally required. BPS in the past has spent Title I English learner funds on services to engage parents, extra professional development for teachers, and summer programming for students, records show. At the school level, administrators may, for example, use funds to pay teachers stipends for tutoring English learners after school.

META’s fight for access to the district’s Title I finances comes as officials finalize the BPS budget for fiscal 2024. The School Committee is scheduled to vote on the $1.4 billion spending plan next month.

At stake in that overall budget is $13.5 million specifically for English learners — 30 percent of the district’s total projected Title I funding to match the 30 percent of English learners who now comprise the district’s total student population. BPS told the Globe it could not provide a breakdown for how those funds will be spent until this fall, months after the budget has been approved.

A Globe analysis of 2023 budget records provided by the district found BPS spent roughly $6 million of its $42 million Title I budget — or 14 percent — explicitly on supports for English learners, well below what is required. BPS did not immediately respond to a question about the findings.

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“If, literally, there’s millions of dollars of federal money that is supposed to meet the needs of this particularly vulnerable population of students . . . and Boston can’t, or won’t, or refuses, to account for that — that’s a problem with how they’re doing business. And it means ultimately kids may be denied services they need,” Rice said.

Rice’s concerns aren’t without precedent.

During former superintendent Tommy Chang’s tenure, META discovered the district had for years been sweeping hundreds of thousands of unspent English learner dollars into its general fund reserves. BPS agreed to stop moving the funds and to instead redirect $3 million back to its Office of Multilingual and Multicultural Education after META intervened, Rice said, but the district would not agree to restore money retroactively for funds that had been redirected over the life of the order. That left Boston’s English learners shortchanged tens of millions of dollars, Rice said.

Last year, the district allocated $658,000 in unspent funds to the office for multilingual learner support, BPS said.

Rice said he attempted to tell School Committee members about his concerns during the public comment portion of a Feb. 16 budget hearing.

“Over the past year the BPS has not been able or willing (we don’t truly know which) to account for whether it has complied with the equity standards for ELLs and Title I,” Rice wrote in prepared testimony. “The money involved is significant.”

The School Committee never heard from Rice. Although Rice signed up to speak, BPS legal adviser Lisa Maki told him that META, as plaintiff in the court order, could not provide testimony, Rice said.

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John Mudd, a longtime Boston education advocate and member of the BPS English language learner task force, called the district’s actions “inexplicable.”

“These kinds of questions are about what justice we are doing to the children in our care,” he said. “. . . We talk transparency, but do we practice it?”

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.





Mandy McLaren can be reached at mandy.mclaren@globe.com. Follow her @mandy_mclaren.