Curbs on bilingual education ruled valid

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal district judge yesterday declined to block the initiative that is expected to end most bilingual education programs in California public schools, saying Proposition 227 does not violate the law.

U.S. District Judge Charles Legge said that his job is only to determine whether the controversial initiative is legal, not whether the quick, sheltered English immersion program imposed by Proposition 227 is better than the years-long bilingual education.

“This court is not a Supreme Board of Education,” Legge said in denying an injunction against the initiative. “It is not the province of this court to impose on the people of California its view of which is the better education policy.”

Speaking at the end of a three-hour hearing, Legge said requiring students to learn English in immersion classes “is a valid educational theory,”
supported by some experts, which is all that the federal law requires.

The sponsor of Proposition 227, Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, broke into a big smile as Legge announced that he would not grant the request for an injunction.

“It’s a tremendous victory for the people of California, for the voters of California and most importantly for the hundreds of thousands of children who will be starting school in September,” Unz said later.

Proposition 227 was approved by 61 percent of the voters on June 2. But an exit poll showed that the initiative was opposed by about two-thirds of Latino voters, and most of the students who will be affected by the initiative are Latinos.

Attorneys for a coalition of civil rights groups that sought a preliminary injunction to block Proposition 227 said they are likely to appeal. But they said swift action will be needed because the initiative requires school districts to begin moving students into immersion programs in August and September.

“This is going to have profound, horrible ramifications, I believe,
for these children,” said the lead attorney for the coalition, Deborah Escobedo of Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy in San Francisco.

A quarter of the children in California public schools, 1.4 million students,
are classified as speaking limited English. But only 30 percent of them are currently receiving bilingual education, due among other problems to a shortage of qualified teachers who speak their native language. The rest of the students are taught mainly in English.

School districts throughout San Diego County were anticipating yesterday’s ruling. In fact, most districts began working to implement Proposition 227 not long after voters passed the initiative.

“I think emotionally, we have been on hold. But in terms of the work, we’ve been busy trying to create a plan to implement Prop. 227 when school starts,” said Tim Allen, who oversees bilingual education for the San Diego Unified School District.

One in four San Diego Unified students speaks limited English.

“Bilingual education is dead. It’s gone,” said Ken Noonan,
superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District, where the limited-English students make up barely more than 20 percent of the student body.

He said legal advisers have told him the careful crafting of the initiative’s language assures it will withstand legal challenges.

Some pundits said that the majority of Californians supporting Proposition 227 were casting a vote for assimilation and the view that immigrants should learn English quickly. Students in bilingual education programs are taught in their native language for up to seven years as they gradually learn English.
The new immersion courses would last about one year.

Backers of the initiative contend that bilingual education is a failed 25-year experiment that slows the progress of students and contributes to a high dropout rate among Latinos.

“The bilingual education system in California has failed far too many students for far too long and deprived them from becoming fluent in English,” Gov. Pete Wilson said in a statement praising the ruling.

But advocates of bilingual education say the programs, when properly run, lead to a deeper grasp of English and keep students from falling behind as they learn a new language.

“The fact is that we have a bilingual education program that works and it will be impacted,” said Alma Pirazzini, who runs the bilingual education program at the Sweetwater Union High School District, where about one in four students speak limited English.

“I am disappointed for the kids and parents who really need the services,” she said. “I thought the (judge’s ruling) might buy us a little more breathing room. I guess not. We will be implementing and learning at the same time — not the best way to do things.”

Legge said that the oral presentations he heard yesterday added little to the written briefs submitted earlier by both sides. The 48-page ruling he issued was written before the hearing. The judge, considered a moderate appointed by President Ronald Reagan, said he was forced to make a ruling purely on legal grounds, or on its “face,” because Proposition 227 has not yet been implemented.

Local school districts have not yet adopted specific plans for immersion programs. Thus, Legge said there is no way to know whether the parental requests for waivers from the immersion requirement — as provided for in the initiative — will relieve the harm alleged by opponents of the measure.

“The fact that Proposition 227 might in the future operate in violation of a federal law or the Constitution under some scenario is insufficient to render it facially invalid,” said Legge.

The opponents argued that Proposition 227 violates federal law because it imposes an experimental, untested program that prescribes a rigid, “one-size-fits-all”
program for students.

Legge said that each side submitted evidence showing that their educational method is superior. He said the argument of opponents that Proposition 227 is inflexible is “overrated.” And, he said, no harm would result from quickly prepared immersion programs that could not be corrected.

“Neither federal law nor the Constitution requires bilingual education,”
said Legge. “They do not indeed require any form of language education.”

San Diego school district administrators are working to find as much flexibility in Proposition 227 as legally possible.

“The initiative may not be as restrictive as we initially thought,”
said Jose Gonzales, an attorney for the San Diego Unified School District.

For instance, Gonzales said students who speak limited English may be able to attend sheltered English immersion courses for longer than a year before transferring to mainstream classrooms. What’s more, parents who request waivers may be able to keep their children in traditional bilingual education courses until they fully grasp English.

Proposition 227 is the third high-profile initiative that touches on the issue of race as California undergoes a demographic change that will make whites a minority within a few years.

A ban on public education and other services for illegal immigrants,
Proposition 187, was approved by voters in 1994 and blocked by the courts.
A rollback of state affirmative action programs, Proposition 209, was approved by voters in 1996 and upheld by the courts.

“The people of California somehow have taken great pleasure in aiming their fears at the children of immigrants,” said Escobedo, the civil rights coalition attorney, after the ruling yesterday.

Staff writers Maureen Magee and Chris Moran contributed to this report.

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