Judge Blocks Orange Schools Language Plan

Education: Temporary restraining order means district cannot yet drop bilingual instruction.

A Sacramento judge Monday temporarily blocked Orange Unified School District’s new English-immersion program for students who speak other languages, reversing a key victory that school administrators had won last month in their campaign to drop bilingual education.

The temporary restraining order granted by Judge Ronald B. Robie of Sacramento County Superior Court was a significant legal victory for California’s bilingual proponents at a time when bilingual education has come under increasing political attack.

This summer, state lawmakers have been debating legislation that could ease state bilingual education requirements. In addition, an anti-bilingual education group is gathering signatures for a proposed ballot measure that would require teaching students in English first.

Robie’s decision sets the stage for a court battle over exactly what services school districts must offer children who are not fluent in English if they choose not to teach them in their native language.

Latino rights advocates and bilingual proponents from around the state who had joined the lawsuit said they relish the prospect of a legal fight.

“How wonderful!” said Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a Latino rights group that is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “Of course we are highly elated. We also must be sober enough to tell you that a lot of things hang in the balance. A lot of material needs to be provided to convince the court.”

In his three-page decision, Robie said there were “significant questions” about whether Orange educators had taken enough steps to safeguard the rights of non-English-speaking children–echoing points made in a critical Department of Education report earlier this summer. Still, the judge said that federal law does not require native-language teaching.

An attorney for Orange Unified, Celia Ruiz of San Francisco, said Monday evening that the district would fight to overturn the order. “We’re going to aggressively defend the district’s program because we believe it fully comports with state and federal laws,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz added that the judge’s finding that federal law does not require native-language instruction will help the district as it argues the case.

The suit against Orange Unified was filed on July 25 by a coalition of parents and Latino rights groups. They alleged that the district had ignored the pleas of Spanish-speaking parents and a petition with 800 signatures seeking to preserve bilingual teaching.

The plaintiffs chose Sacramento Superior Court in part because the State Board of Education and state schools chief Delaine Eastin were named as co-defendants.

The Orange Unified district serves Orange and Villa Park and portions of Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana.

The judge’s order left the district in a jam. About a quarter of the district’s 29,000 students are not fluent in English; of those, roughly 1,500 in primary grades had been taught in a traditional bilingual program until the district formally switched to English-based teaching on Aug. 1.

But a top district official said Orange might have trouble backpedaling: 28 of its 45 certified bilingual teachers left the district in the wake of the school board’s unanimous decision in May to move to English immersion.

The board’s decision had been upheld in July when the state Board of Education declined to approve or deny the district’s request for an alternative teaching program–effectively granting Orange a year to go ahead as it wished. Orange had become the fourth Orange County school district, and the largest in the state, to win a general waiver from state bilingual education rules in the past two years.

Robie’s ruling put at least a temporary stop to the district’s plans.

“It’s a big surprise,” said Neil McKinnon, an assistant superintendent. “I’m really amazed. The courts are taking over what the state board did.”

McKinnon said he would follow the law but warned that it could be difficult to return to the status quo.

“To say we have to go back just is not going to be possible,” he said. “We can go back in those few classrooms where we still have bilingual teachers.”

At Fairhaven Elementary School in Santa Ana–where four out of five students are Latino and most of those speak little English–Principal Phil Morse said he would scramble to do what he could. He now has only three bilingual teachers, down from 11 in the previous school year.

“We’re going to need some time to catch our breath and strategize,” said Morse, adding that he will have to come up with something before Wednesday’s staff meeting. Attorneys for both sides agree that the case could set important precedents if it goes to trial.

The defendants hope to win more freedom for local districts to choose the teaching plan they prefer.

Plaintiffs hope state officials will be forced to think twice before allowing educators to drop bilingual teaching.

Education experts are sharply divided over which teaching method works best. Of roughly 1.4 million students in California who are not fluent in English, only about 30% in recent years have received their main classroom instruction in their native language. The rest have special support, such as bilingual aides, or no help at all.

Many school districts are under orders to hire or train more bilingual teachers. But such teachers are in short supply, especially those who speak languages other than Spanish.

Neither the state board nor Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, has taken a position on the lawsuit, said Joseph R. Symkowick, general counsel for the state Department of Education. He had no comment Monday on the judge’s ruling.

The state board had already scheduled a meeting for Wednesday to discuss the case. No date has been set yet for the next court hearing.

Earlier this month, the Orange school board voted to place the issue of bilingual education on the Nov. 4 ballot to determine whether voters back the trustees. The vote would be nonbinding.

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