Parents, Advocates Support English Language Learners’ Bill of Rights

Parents, Advocates Support English Language Learners’ Bill of Rights

Marisabel Huarca sat in front of her laptop and took a few breaths. She reached over and squeezed Jennifer Gómez’s hand. “Gracias,” she whispered in her native Spanish. Gómez smiled.

Gómez had agreed to translate for Huarca during a public hearing of the Committee of Education that was held in Hartford late last month. The hearing lasted about five hours and centered on House Bill 6663, an act that would establish a bill of rights for English Language Learners (ELL) and their parents in statewide schools.

Although there are already a number of laws and requirements in place to protect ELL students, the bill seeks to add protections to these rights — including the right to attend public school regardless of immigration status, the right of parents to receive school forms in a language they can understand, and the right for families to have a qualified translator at critical interactions with schools.

After experiencing some technical difficulties with the Zoom call, Huarca spoke in support of the bill, based on her work as a parent advocate for the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, known as ConnCAN. She attended the hearing virtually from ConnCAN offices based in Cheshire, along with a few other ConnCAN advocates.

“We have over 45,000 ELL students. It’s fundamental that this group of people have the same rights and privileges that any other student in this country has. Speaking a different language shouldn’t be a barrier,” Huarca said.

Arlene Angel is originally from Mexico, but has been a Hartford resident for 21 years. During her testimony, she expressed frustration with the Hartford School District and the way it educated her two daughters. She joined the education nonprofit Make the Road CT and also testified in favor of the bill.

“It is ridiculous that my daughter needs to be my voice during meetings with the school. This is not my daughter’s job. This affects the relationship I have with my daughter because this should not be her job, but I have no other option,” she said in her native Spanish.

During her testimony, the state’s Child Advocate Sarah Egan said her office had also received similar complaints from parents who had not been notified about changes in their children’s education in their language. She added her office had two pending systemic investigations of school districts for violating Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act.

Title VI stipulates that “no person … 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.”

“There have been school districts including in the state of Connecticut in recent years that have been found in violation of the civil rights laws and had to resolve these concerns and complaints with the federal government,” Eagan said. “The Bill of Rights I think is good, but it remains a federal civil rights obligation of school districts to do better.”

The bill also received support from nonprofit organizations like the School and State Finance Project, the Special Education Equity for Kids (SEEK) and the State Department of Education.

“The Bill of Rights is really allowing us to make sure that we address the entire ecosystem of supports around our students to see how they’re doing, also assessing them and making sure the supports are there for the educators and for students,” said Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker during her testimony.

The bill started a couple of months ago as a grassroots initiative, said Luis Ortiz, the state grassroots manager at ConnCAN.

A number of nonprofit organizations realized that their parents complained about not being able to become involved in their children’s education because of the language barrier.

The group named itself the “ELL Students and Parent Success Coalition” and approached Democratic State Representatives Antonio Felipe and Juan Candelaria, who presented the parent bill of rights under House Bill 6211.

“We figured we’d just make it a state issue from the very beginning. So therefore, if there’s anyone that we didn’t know was going through this, let’s say, in Torrington, they will still have some protection as well,” Ortiz said.

The bill did not pass a hearing in the education committee in January, but was reintroduced with a few edits by Gov. Ned Lamont.

“Several weeks ago, a group of parents, students, legislators and advocates held an event outside my office to propose the creation of an English Learner’s Bill of Rights and explain its importance. After hearing their stories and the importance of this bill to their families, I understood. Their voices were heard in my office, and I hope we can all hear them,” Lamont said in a written testimony in support of the bill.

Lamont added that he supports the bill because it increases parent involvement with local school districts.

“I believe there is nothing more important to a child’s education than an engaged and supportive parent or guardian, and this bill guarantees that they will have the information necessary to do so,” he said.

Lamont’s sentiment was echoed by Angelique Torres, an Attorney at the Center for Children’s Advocacy who was involved in drafting the legislation early in the process. She said that the bill was modeled on a similar one already put in place in New York.

“The importance of parent engagement in schools cannot be overstated. Research shows that parent engagement in schools is closely linked to a better student behavior, higher academic achievement and enhanced social skills,” she said during her testimony.

Yorelys Cárdenas said her daughter studied in a bilingual program in Luis Munoz Marin School in Bridgeport However, she said the school transferred her daughter out of the bilingual program without notifying her.

As an organizer with Make the Road, Cárdenas said she encounters similar challenges with other parents she speaks with.

“Marin School is a place where most of the students who need to learn English in the city of Bridgeport attend school, and yet, every time I went to the general assemblies there was never interpretation services for the parents, which led to a low participation from families,” she said. “The only way that our State can reach the standards it deserves in education is by involving all stakeholders and that includes parents.”

Despite the number of supporters who spoke in favor of the bill, legislators and educators raised a number of concerns regarding the testing requirements and translator requirements — especially in urban school districts that are chronically underfunded and understaffed.

Luis Rosado Burch of the Connecticut Education Association gave testimony in favor of the bill, but also advocated for reform of the education system. He explained that ELL students are three times more likely to experience homelessness as other students and are twice as likely to come from low income households.

He added that the language barrier makes ELL students more likely to be misidentified as special education or suspended.

“We recognize that the major challenges affecting our English language learners are a lack of adequate dedicated funding, a shortage of qualified teachers and support staff and a lack of oversight and enforcement,” he said.

In response to his testimony, Rep. Chris Poulos, D-Southington, raised a concern about enforcing the bill and said that the issue was more of a systemic issue than a compliance issue.

“How do we ensure compliance when many of these students and families are coming from urban districts that are grossly understaffed?” he asked.

“I teach in a suburban school and we have a Spanish teacher who is going on maternity leave and we can’t find someone in our district certified to teach Spanish — let alone a certified translator,” he added.

New Haven Federation of Teachers President Leslie Blatteau echoed Poulos’ concern about implementation. She spoke in support of the bill, but added a concern about the lack of additional funding.

“Given we already face a shortage of bilingual educators in our city and state and educator depletion and burnout is at an all-time high, I worry that this bill is a potential unfunded mandate that could cause even more depletion and burnout among our bilingual educators and staff who are already doing so much with so little.”

However, for ConnCAN grassroots organizers, the bill is designed to help parents work with their children’s school districts and improve the education for ELL students.

“What we don’t want to do is pin this against any school. We know that schools all around the nation are having teacher shortages, tax issues, funding crisis,” Ortiz said. “We don’t want to keep adding more fuel to the flame. But what we are trying to do is let parents know that we’re here for them, and that they do have rights.”


Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at To learn more about RFA, visit


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