Highlights of U.S. Public School Requirements Concerning Translations for Parents and Students

A recent lawsuit brought by Latino parents against a school district in Massachusetts and that state’s Department of Education has put U.S. translation and interpretation regulations in the spotlight.

To understand U.S. public schools’ requirements, several federal laws come into play, with an uptick of activity in recent years. While many of the early regulations don’t specifically use the terms “translation” and “interpretation,” they reference the need for schools to offer documentation to parents in a language they can understand.

The topic initially builds off Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The following year, President Johnson signed into law English Learners and Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which included funding distribution guidance for supplementary educational centers and services.

Then in May 1970 came a U.S. Department of Education (DE) memo regarding non-English school activity notices. “School districts have the responsibility to adequately notify national origin-minority group parents of school activities which are called to the attention of other parents. Such notice in order to be adequate may have to be provided in a language other than English,” according to a 2011 webinar, “Translation and Interpretation for English Learners” presented by the DE’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Four years later, President Nixon’s Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 required, among other things, “that states and school districts to provide English Language Learner (ELL) students with appropriate services to overcome language barriers,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) website’s Educational Opportunities Section. This ensures that English language students “can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs,” states a January 2015 Joint Fact Sheet from DoJ and DE.

The following year brought the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); signed by President Ford, “the law guaranteed access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) to every child with a disability,” noted on the DE website’s IDEA page.

According to “A Toolkit for Teachers and School Personnel, Tool 5” on the Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services website, IDEA includes the following:

  • “Assessments and other evaluation materials used to assess a child must be provided and administered in the child’s native language unless it is clearly not feasible to do so.
  • “All parents of a child with a disability are to be provided with written notice before the school proposes to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child. This written notice must be provided in the native language of the parent unless it is clearly not feasible to do so. If the native language is not a written language, the school must ensure that the notice is translated orally.
  • “When consent is sought (for accepting special education services, etc.), the parent must be fully informed of all information relevant to the activity for which consent is sought, in his or her native language, or in another mode of communication.
  • “The State Educational Agency must inform parents about their right to the confidentiality of personally identifiable information. This notice must be given in the native languages of the various population groups in the State.”

Moving forward to August 2000, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13166, “Improving Access for Persons with Limited English Proficiency” (LEP), which clarified Title VI responsibilities. BRYCS’s 2011 “Tool 5” Toolkit states that the order “discusses what constitutes ‘reasonable steps' to ensure that clients in federally funded programs have meaningful access to the information and services provided and looks at four factors:

  1. “The number or proportion of LEP persons to be served;
  2. “The frequency with which LEP individuals come in contact with the program;
  3. “The nature and importance of the program, activity, or service to people’s lives; (and)
  4. “The resources available to the grantee/recipient and costs.”

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) looked, in part, at where students “needed additional support, regardless of race, income, zip code, disability, home language, or background,” the DE website states. According to the BRYCS “Tool 5” Toolkit, this includes information on academic assessments, state and agency report cards, parents’ rights, supplemental educational services, and programs, meetings, and other district activities.

In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law by President Obama, reauthorizing the ESEA, clarifying funding provisions, and offering revisions to English learner proficiency and accountability standards, according to a 2016 document on the Council of Chief State School Officers website. It also amended IDEA.

These mandates, in essence, say that “LEP parents are entitled to meaningful communication in a language they can understand, such as through translated materials or a language interpreter, and to adequate notice of the information about any program, service, or activity that is called to the attention of a non-LEP parent,” according to a 2015 fact sheet on the DE’s Office for Civil Rights webpage.

And how many students may actually need translation services? Consider this: according to the second January 2015 Joint Fact Sheet from the DoJ and DE, “English learner (EL) students constitute nine percent of all public school students and are enrolled in nearly three out of every four public schools.”

Compliance with these federal requirements is critical for public school districts, and a reliable translation company can assist in offering a correct and complete translation of documents for students and parents.

Download our recently published e-book on Translation and Education here.

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