Board to appeal on waivers

Education panel will still review Prop. 227 exemption requests

Still uncertain about what role it should play in the battle over bilingual education, the state board of education said Thursday it will appeal a superior court ruling that requires it to consider the waiver requests of school districts seeking to preserve bilingual classes.

After a closed session meeting, the board said it would take its case to the 1st District Court of Appeals.

“We do intend to appeal this case,” said Bill Lucia, the board’s executive director.

Lucia said the board will still review several waiver requests from local districts today as planned.

More than two dozen school districts — among them seven from Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties — have filed requests to be exempt from Proposition 227, which requires that students who speak little or no English be taught predominantly in English instead of their native tongue.

But in June, shortly after the initiative passed, the board said it would not even consider the requests, maintaining that it had no authority to act against the voters’ will.

Last month, however, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Henry Needham Jr. issued a tentative order that said the board must at least consider the districts’ requests. The order, which still must be made final, stemmed from a suit filed by three Alameda County districts — Berkeley, Oakland and Hayward — that had filed waiver applications with the state board.

On the agenda today are requests from 16 districts, including Ravenswood, Fremont Unified, Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward. Palo Alto Unified and San Mateo-Foster City Elementary are also seeking waivers to continue offering Spanish immersion programs without having to radically alter the programs’ curriculum.

State Department of Education staff members recommended approving waivers for Hayward and Berkeley.

Celia Ruiz, who represented Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward in the superior court case, expressed disappointment but was not surprised that the board has chosen to appeal. But she added that unless the board receives special permission from the court — an intervening order — the decision to hear the waiver requests today meets the judge’s wishes.

“We believe they are required to take action,” she said.

What this will mean for districts seeking exemptions will remain unresolved until the appeals process ends. The board’s actions today will be valid only if its appeal is denied.

If the court of appeals says the state board has no authority to grant waivers, that would nullify the board’s action.

On Wednesday, Gov. Pete Wilson sent a letter to Board of Education President Yvonne Larsen strongly urging the group to appeal so “the will of the people who enacted Proposition 227 will not be thwarted by the education bureaucrats who seek to avoid compliance with this voter-approved initiative — at the expense of this state’s children.”

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