Providence Elementary School first-graders (clockwise from bottom left) Amin Zaqzouq, Jacob Kilts and Darelyn Cruz work on spelling and vocabulary with Cheryl Mallon, a teacher in the school’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program. (Tin Nguyen/Fairfax County Times)

The Obama administration released guidelines Wednesday that highlight the civil rights of students learning English as a second language, who under federal law are guaranteed targeted help and a high-quality public education.

There are about 5 million English-language learners in the United States, or about 9 percent of all public school students, and the number is increasing. So, too, are the number of civil rights complaints concerning English learners, according to the Education Department, while national test scores and other data show a persistent achievement gap between native English speakers and those learning English as a second language.

“It is crucial to the future of our nation that these students, and all students, have equal access to a high-quality education and the opportunity to achieve their full academic potential,” administration officials wrote in an open letter to the nation’s educators. The letter was signed by Catherine E. Lhamon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, and Vanita Gupta, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department.

The letter comes amid public debate about schools’ responsibility to serve the thousands of unaccompanied and undocumented minors who have streamed across the border in the past year. It also follows President Obama’s executive action to allow nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States. Some English learners are immigrants; many others are the children of immigrants.

The new guidance is the first in 24 years to address the rights of English learners and comes 40 years after the Supreme Court ruled that schools must provide targeted help for them. It does not establish new policy, but it intends to lay out in one place the many obligations schools have under federal law, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.

Read the open letter

Starr's report

Federal officials released a "Dear Colleague" letter about policies and guidelines for educating the nation's approximately 5 million English language learners. Read it.

Among the requirements: Provide English learners with language programs led by qualified teachers, integrate English learners as much as possible into mainstream classrooms and communicate with parents in a language they understand.

The administration published the guidelines in the face of “serious compliance concerns around the country,” Lhamon said. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has received more than 475 such complaints since 2009 and has 60 active investigations in 26 states.

Federal investigations that turn up evidence of civil rights violations can result in settlement agreements in which states or school districts commit to making changes necessary to comply with the law. Last month, for example, the department reached an agreement with an Oregon school district to improve special-education services for English learners.

But the law is loose enough that it’s tough for federal officials to intervene in all but the most egregious cases, said Conor P. Williams, a senior researcher at New America Foundation.

Williams said that the rising number of civil rights complaints is due more to the growing population of English language learners than to a sudden spike in concern about those students.

“There are a lot more English learners in American schools, and American schools don’t know what to do about it, so they are stumbling around,” Williams said.

Civil rights data shows that English-language learners account for 5 percent of high school students nationwide but make up only 2 percent of students in Advanced Placement classes and 11 percent of students who are held back a grade.

Federal law does not dictate the curriculum schools must use to teach English learners, saying only that the programs must be “educationally sound in theory and effective in practice” and may segregate English learners from mainstream classes only if there is a good reason.

Debate about whether English learners should be taught in bilingual or English-immersion classrooms has been a political lightning rod in several states with large immigrant populations, perhaps most notably in California. In 1998, California voters passed a proposition that curtailed the amount of time English-language learners could spend in special programs and required them to be instructed almost entirely in English.

But sentiment appears to be shifting, and the November 2016 ballot in California includes a measure that would repeal key provisions of that law.