English-only issue may spread

EDUCATION: Orange's waiver sparks a debate.

ORANGE, CA—The local debate over bilingual education that continued Tuesday on the steps of Orange City Hall might ultimately involve much bigger issues than whether English-only instruction will be required for the nearly 30,000 students in the Orange Unified School District.

The fallout might foreshadow a state and national debate on the issue, as an “English for the children” ballot initiative simmers and a legal challenge against Orange’s English-only ambitions begins its trek through the courts.

“If this isn’t stopped, it will give other districts the green light that they, too, can join in this denial of proper education to our children,” said Jose R. Padilla, executive director of Santa Rosa-based California Rural Legal Assistance, one of several Hispanic activists who gathered at Orange City Hall on Tuesday.

A suit was filed in Sacramento last week against the Orange district and the state Board of Education, to stop Orange’s plans to begin dismantling its bilingual program this Friday. Padilla and others took their message to the media Tuesday.

The basis of the suit is that Orange failed to meet state and federal requirements for its bilingual program, and therefore is ineligible to switch to English-only instruction.

Coalition members stressed that this confrontation isn’t strictly local.

“We feel this is a bellwether county for conservative causes,” Padilla said. “There are others in other parts of the state who feelresources should not go to children who do not speak English.

We fear the domino effect. ”
The case is being watched closely in legal and political circles elsewhere.

“I think this could be a key legal test for bilingual education in California,” said Ronald Wenkart, general counsel for the Orange County Department of Education. He said the case could affect the state Board of Education’s authority over bilingual instruction and might determine whether native-language instruction is required by state law.

Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a minority-issues think tank in Claremont, said the Orange confrontation over bilingual education is shaping up as the “third strike” affecting minorities recently in California. Propositions 189 (anti-illegal immigration) and 209 (anti-affirmative action) are the first two, he said. Just as 189 and 209 became widely discussed topics across the country, so will bilingual education, Pachon predicted, with Hispanics likely to become more active politically.

“These are the issues which will probably be discussed nationally in 1998,” he said. “There is a drumbeat of questions now about bilingual education, about whether it is a success or failure. It will only intensify if the proposed initiative makes it to the ballot next year. “

The campaign for the initiative is being underwritten by Palo Alto software millionaire and former gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, and spearheaded by former Tustin Unified School Board member Gloria Matta Tuchman. It would virtually abolish bilingual instruction for 1.3 million public school students in California who are classified as “not proficient in English. “

Proponents hope banning bilingual education in California would effectively subvert such programs elsewhere. About half the nation’s non-English-proficient children live in California.

The Orange plan would require teachers from kindergarten through third grade to use only English, with assistance from bilingual teaching aides.

That plan was put in motion earlier this month, when the state Board of Education, by failing to take action on the Orange district’s request to drop its bilingual programs, effectively granted a one-year waiver. The suit filed in SacramentoCounty Superior Court seeks a temporary restraining order _ a request that will be heard by a judge today _ as well as a full-blown review of whether Orange can legally switch to English-only instruction.

Orange is the fourth school district to gain a bilingual waiver.

The other three are all in Orange County _ the much smaller Westminster, Magnolia and Savanna districts. Most observers agree it is probably too early to gauge how well English-only instruction has worked in those districts; moreover, the circumstances that led to the change in those districts were considerably less controversial.

In Westminster, the primary reason for obtaining the waiver was that there simply weren’t enough teachers who spoke Vietnamese to meet state and federal bilingual requirements.

In Orange, however, coalition members argue that the change has less to do with pragmatism than with ideology. The Orange Unified board of education is dominated by self-proclaimed social conservatives who have taken other controversial stands.

But Orange school officials have steadfastly maintained that English-only instruction is best for all concerned. “It is the most effective method of teaching our children,” said Marty Jacobson, Orange board president.

ENGLISH ONLY: Tell us why you think instruction should or should not be in English only, as is proposed by the Orange Unified School District. Call Register InfoLine at (714) 550-4636, category 7251.

Selected comments will appear in a follow-up reader reaction story in the Register.



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