Impact of education ruling hazy

Bilingual programs may not be required

SACRAMENTO — Opponents of bilingual education say a judge’s ruling could end the state requirement for the program and shift decisions about educating immigrant children to local school districts.

But state officials still are trying to sort out the impact of the decision by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald Robie last week in a suit filed to prevent an Orange County school district from dropping its bilingual education program.

Robie’s ruling said the state Board of Education had no authority to grant Orange Unified a waiver from the state requirement for bilingual education,
mainly because the state law authorizing bilingual education expired in 1986.

The decision said Orange Unified can continue its switch to a more abrupt
“sheltered immersion” program because federal law does not require bilingual education or instruction in the native language of the student.

However, Robie said at the same time a part of the state bilingual education law remaining in effect allows audits of school districts to ensure that funds allocated for non-English-speaking students are used properly.

Celia Ruiz, an attorney for Orange Unified, said Robie agreed with the argument, made in the past by the watchdog Little Hoover Commission and others, that the state improperly used “underground regulations”
to continue bilingual education after the law expired.

The state Department of Education has enforced vigorously the bilingual education requirement, cutting off funds to bring some districts into line and placing others, such as San Diego Unified, under close monitoring.

“The decision returns to local school districts the flexibility,
control and discretion over their programs,” Ruiz said. “That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not going to be without oversight.”

But Michael Hersher, chief counsel for the state Department of Education,
said the audit responsibility still gives the state the “power of the purse” over districts that do not provide bilingual education when necessary.

“There is going to be a lot of action that is going to occur,”
said Hersher, referring to appeals, stays and other possible modifications of the ruling. “We haven’t done anything at this point to encourage districts to change their behavior.”

In bilingual education, students are taught mainly in their native language for up to seven years. Opponents of bilingual education want the students to learn English quickly and move into mainstream classes.

An initiative placed on the June ballot by businessman Ron Unz, Proposition 227, would end most bilingual education programs and require a sheltered English immersion program, lasting about a year. The measure has a commanding lead in the polls.

The state Department of Education under Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin supports bilingual education. But the state Board of Education,
appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson, takes a different view.

“We certainly see (Robie’s ruling) as potentially a watershed type of decision,” said Bill Lucia, state Board of Education executive director.

The state board granted waivers from the bilingual education requirement last year to Orange Unified and three other districts in Orange County.

Tomorrow, the state board is scheduled to consider a request by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation to repeal the bilingual education policy advisories and guidelines issued after the law expired in 1986.

“If the state board rescinds the policy, that doesn’t change the law,” Hersher said. “That just takes away an informational tool as to what the law is.”

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