Latino Civil Rights Group Fights to Keep Desegregation Order on the Books

January 22, 2009

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One 2007 court-ordered report found that 86 bilingual education students weren't getting services they were entitled to at Kelly High School.
A hearing begins today to determine whether Chicago's 29-year-old school desegregation case should be thrown out. The consent decree orders Chicago Public Schools to create as many integrated schools as possible. A lesser-known provision also spells out services the district must provide to students who don't speak English proficiently. That's the main reason some are fighting to keep the decree in place.

Related: An End for Racially Integrated Schools?

One of the groups that's pushing hardest to keep the consent decree around is the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Latino civil rights organization.

Maldef attorney Ricardo Meza says the consent decree requires CPS to do this:

MEZA: to basically treat English language learners in the same way that they treat the other students.

That means students learning English are to be taught in equivalent facilities, with similar student-teacher ratios. And students are supposed to get materials and assistance in their native language until they make the transition to English.

But Meza says that despite nearly three decades under the consent decree,
 
MEZA: There are still problems with the program. We still have children that are taught on auditorium stages. We still have children taught in the hallways. We have children who don't have any reading material in the Spanish language. We have children taught by teachers who are not certified in bilingual education.

People debate whether the consent decree has produced more equitable schools. But one thing is clear: it's created a lot of reports. A number of them document conditions Meza refers to.

Kelly High School comes up regularly.

There are about 52,000 English language learners in Chicago Public Schools—330 are here at Kelly, a school so overcrowded students come in three shifts.

From a basement office, in what used to be the bomb shelter, Efrain Gonzalez runs Kelly's bilingual education program—one of the biggest high school programs in the city. Reports have found that Kelly's failed to provide kids the bilingual services they're entitled to.

But Gonzalez says the reports don't take into account the sort of in-the-trenches decisions teachers have to make. Take a kid who needs an Information Technology class to graduate, Gonzalez says. Maybe the class meets at the same time as the bilingual American Literature class.

GONZALEZ: So I need to decide—what will be better for the kid? To graduate from high school? Or to take this class? And sometimes what's better for the kid does not always agree with policy.

Gonzalez says he has to think about the consent decree every day.

GONZALEZ: It's like part of my job description to sit with lawyers from the federal government and sit here for hours and answer the same questions I answered last year.

Gonzalez says he can't wait for the consent decree to come to an end, so teachers can determine what's right for kids, rather than lawyers. That's an opinion echoed by CPS's top attorneys.

Meza, the Maldef attorney, counters that everybody has a boss they've got to answer to. Schools that provide services required under the consent decree have nothing to worry about. And the consent decree only reiterates state and federal bilingual education laws already on the books. It just provides one more place for civil rights groups like Maldef to take a complaint.

MEZA: If the bilingual program has been so dismal while under the watchful eye of a federal judge, what will happen when we don't have it?

Meza is concerned about losing another provision of the consent decree as well—the one that sets aside seats for minority students at the district's best schools.

The federal judge who oversees the desegregation case asked for public comment on whether the decree should continue. Written testimony already submitted falls strongly on the side of keeping the decree.

One concerned citizen offered this spin on an old adage: “If it ain't fixed, don't break it.”