ORANGE—As the Orange Unified School District’s decision to drop bilingual instruction is debated in the courts, trustees voted Tuesday to move the issue into the political realm by putting it before the voters in November.
While the public’s judgment regarding bilingual education might appear to be moot–the new English immersion program is already underway–the issue remains unresolved.
A flurry of briefs and responses to briefs are sweeping through Sacramento Superior Court this week as Latino activists try to win a restraining order forcing the district to reinstate bilingual education. The judge could rule on the matter as early as Friday.
Trustee Robert H. Viviano, who spearheaded the English immersion effort and who asked for a referendum on the November ballot, said he initially hoped to keep the issue from becoming “politicized.” But once the Latino groups filed suit, he said, the district could not ignore the political ramifications.
Viviano said the cost for the referendum will be minimal, because the district will be holding an election for four trustee seats in November.
“It’s not intended to be divisive,” he said of the referendum. “All this is intended to do is clear up the issue, to see if this change has reasonably widespread support. Let the people say what they will.”
The question that will be put to the voters, without any accompanying pro-and-con ballot literature, is: “Do you agree with the recent decision of the Orange Unified School District to replace the Bilingual Education Program with an English Immersion Literacy Program?”
That struck a handful of those who spoke at the sparsely attended afternoon meeting as shamefully political.
“I believe it’s inappropriate to politicize matters of educational policy,” said Deborah S. Gillen, a teacher in the district. “You have to educate all the children in the district, whether their parents are eligible to vote or not.”
Trustee Max Reissmueller, who cast the only vote against the referendum proposal, said he thought it was unnecessary.
“I think what we’re doing is the right thing to do regardless of the outcome of an advisory vote,” he said.
Orange Unified receives about $ 1.6 million in state and federal funds for bilingual education, said Assistant Superintendent Neil McKinnon. That means that their program for teaching non-English speaking students must meet state and federal approval.
The district won temporary permission to replace bilingual education, in which some 1,500 students were taught in their native Spanish, in July. But the 5-2 vote of the state Board of Education was short of the six votes needed to secure a permanent decision. The district, by default, was able to win a waiver from bilingual requirements for one year.
Latino advocacy groups filed suit over the issue last week. They argued that Orange Unified, the largest district in the state to seek such a waiver, was denying equal educational opportunities to non-English-speaking students. Parents, they argued, were against the move.
Viviano said the district needs to verify community support for its new program.
A resounding public affirmation of English immersion, in which students are taught in English with the help of bilingual aides, might sway the full state board next May, when the matter will be argued again, he said.