When it comes to improving bilingual education programs, the buck doesn’t stop at the Seattle School District. It continues on to Olympia.

That was the district’s bottom line this week in responding to a class-action suit in which 18 bilingual students and their parents alleged the school curriculum for students who speak limited English is inadequate and violates state and federal laws.

In addition to bringing in the state as a co-defendant, the district’s 19-page response, filed late Monday, moved the case from King County Superior Court to U.S. District Court.

The transfer will allow those portions of the lawsuit dealing with federal laws to be handled by a federal judge, said Michael Hoge, legal counsel for the district.

The move could also give the district an edge in the legal battle because, despite similarities in the two laws, federal bilingual mandates are considered by many lawyers to be vague. State law, on the other hand, could be construed to require more bilingual initiatives than federal law.

Moreover, the district’s move assures that state bilingual education funding, which it contends is inadequate, will be scrutinized by the courts.

But it could backfire on the district. For instance, a federal judge could keep the portions of the case pertaining to federal law and send the rest back to Superior Court. At that point, the district would find itself fighting on two fronts with varying potential penalties either way.

“Irrespective of this lawsuit, state funding for bilingual programs is inadequate,” Hoge said. “We’re putting far more local money into bilingual education than we should be.”

Local funding for bilingual education comprises more than $5million of the total $8.3million budget.

If the court finds the district’s bilingual programs require improvements or changes, the state could be forced to ante up more bilingual funds.

Such a decision would have far-reaching consequences because the state Legislature, which must authorize any increase in basic education funding, would be unlikely to give Seattle more money without offering similar deals to other school districts.

“We’re certainly watching this case,” said Sharon Howard, legal counsel for the Bellevue School District. Among suburban school districts, Bellevue has the second-highest number of immigrant pupils after Seattle.

State education officials have said they expect an examination of whether the school district is properly administering its bilingual program before any determination of funding is undertaken by the courts.

Howard said the court battle might also iron out issues such as what type of bilingual program – total immersion in English language or pulling non-English-speaking students out of class for private instruction – is the best.

The suit, brought against the district in December, charged that some immigrant students are denied a proper education because English-as-a-second-language classes are not taught at the school they attend.

The lawsuit also demands the district offer native-language instruction, in which students would be taught in their primary language and English. School officials have said there is no money to offer dual-language instruction to the nearly 10,000 students who speak more than one language.

School officials acknowledged that many non-English-speaking students are not at parity with their fully English-proficient counterparts of the same age or grade level.

They blame this disparity on paltry state funding that does not begin to meet the needs of the district’s bilingual population. In addition, school officials said, many immigrant children enter the district with limited formal education.



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