WALNUT CREEK, Calif. _ Parents can sue their children’s teachers if they don’t speak English in the classroom, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, upholding a key enforcement provision of California’s controversial Proposition 227.
The measure, adopted by voters in 1998, dismantled the state’s bilingual education system and included a provision allowing teachers to be held personally liable for not implementing the new law. The California Teachers Association and several bilingual education groups sued the State Board of Education, alleging the liability provision infringes on teachers’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, ruled Prop. 227’s enforcement provision is constitutional and not too vague, as the teachers had argued.
“We do not believe that the situations where Prop. 227’s application is uncertain will cause a substantial chilling effect on legitimate speech,”
Judge Robert Boochever wrote for the majority.
But Judge A. Wallace Tashima complained the law is insufficiently clear, so much so that enforcement will be left up to parents’ notions of whether teachers are in compliance.
“The parental enforcement provision of Prop. 227 allows for what can best be described as a means of legalistic ambush,” Tashima wrote in his dissent.
Backed by 61 percent of the state’s voters, Prop. 227 mandates that “all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English.” The law also allows parents to sue teachers or administrators who “willfully and repeatedly” refuse to offer students “the option of an English language instructional curriculum in public school.”
No parent, however, has ever sued a teacher for violating Prop. 227.
“This really isn’t an issue and I don’t think it ever will be,” said Randall Olson, superintendent of the Acalanes Union High School District. “Besides,
people can already sue you for any reason they want.”
Under the proposition, the state’s 1.4 million non-English speaking students are to be taught through “sheltered English immersion,” a transitionary process during which classroom instruction is “overwhelmingly” or “nearly all” in English.
The California Teachers Association, in its lawsuit, argued Prop. 227 didn’t clearly establish when non-English languages could be used in the classroom.
The teachers alleged the law would have a chilling affect on their right to free speech.
Priscilla Winslow, an attorney for the teachers association, said she was disappointed by the ruling, but pleased that the court at least made it clear that Prop. 227 applies only to classroom instruction, and not disciplinary action or outside tutoring.
“Our members are also relieved that the majority found that as long as teachers are following the directives of the school district, they can’t be held to be willfully disobeying the provisions of 227,” she said.
The association hasn’t yet decided whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S.
Supreme Court, Winslow said.