Nevada School District Proposes Elimination of Written Translation Services for Special Education Students

Resource deficits are standard in many public schools but a controversial proposal in one Nevada county has some parents reeling. Clark County School District has proposed cutting services that provide written translations of Individualized Education Programs for its students whose parents do not read or speak English. A consultant hired by the school district to make recommendations on budget cuts claims eliminating the written translation service will save the district $20,000.

Since 2004, the Clark County School District has provided translation services to 8,000 ELL special education students. The majority of these students speak Spanish at home. This proposal wouldn't eliminate verbal translation services provided at parent-teacher meetings but verbal translation alone does not ensure parents will fully understand the intricate IEP process.

Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are detailed and personalized plans that include learning goals for children receiving special education services. It is a legally binding document and because of frequent changes in IEP law it can be difficult to keep track of one's legal rights in the public education system. Verbal translation can easily be misconstrued or misunderstood. Written translation provides the reliability needed to ensure one of the most vulnerable populations can be full-participants in their children's learning experience.

Parental involvement in student's education has consistently been linked to higher academic achievement and student motivation. Eliminating services for parents who do not read or write English seems counterproductive. Especially when research demonstrates that language barriers can often discourage parents from participating in the school engagement process. Spanish-speaking families describe feeling that they don't have enough information about the IEP procedure and that can ultimately prevent them from accessing appropriate resources. A recent lawsuit in North Carolina depicts the ramifications of failed translation polices and practices.

The consultant for Clark County Schools acknowledged that the IEP documents often were sent too late to have any value to parents. How can a school expect meaningful parental involvement when schools contradicting values hinder parents' full participation in their child's education? This policy will place unnecessary barriers on these parents whose experiences with schools are already particularly challenging. Paul Takahashi of The Las Vegas Sun reports, "Written translation ensures that parents are able to read their child's translated IEP in their native language, understand it and refer back to it at any time. The goal of these verbal and written translations is to have parents be 'full participants' in the education of their children."

Eliminating written translations of IEP documentation fails to address the ways that policies can disadvantage others and simultaneously reinforces middle-class white privilege. The IEP process is built within a white, middle- and upper-class framework perpetuating one-dimensional communication styles and hegemonic cultural norms. Mainstream families do not face the same inherent and covert barriers that white middle-class families may face because school structures historically work to the advantage of parents who are middle-class, able-bodied, U.S.-born, and standard-English-speaking individuals.

The increasing diversity of U.S. students and their families demonstrate the need to develop innovative strategies to encourage meaningful parental involvement. When weighing budget pressures, eliminating ways to engage parents is a step in the wrong direction. Since successful partnerships between schools and communities entail connecting schools and parents, schools should be working to eliminate engagement barriers faced by all parents, including those of ELL students who do not read or speak English. Until then, families are prone to face communication barriers that will inhibit them from playing a meaningful role in determining the education outcomes of their children.

In Nevada, parents and activists are fighting back. They have threatened to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights that would follow a similar complaint against the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in 2011. The complaint alleged that parents who did not read or write English were not provided with certain information concerning certain school related activities including school suspensions and expulsions. The School District was found in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the district designed a plan to provide written translations to parents who did not read or write English. Time will show if parents and activists will have the final say in Clark County, Nevada.