A federal judge refused Wednesday to halt implementation of Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative voters overwhelmingly approved last month.
The ruling cleared the way for a rapid and unprecedented shake-up of how California’s public schools teach 1.4 million students with limited English skills.
The judge’s decision to allow the will of the voters to stand–for now–marked a departure from the recent tendency of some federal courts to strike down or delay controversial initiatives that have won voter approval.
The emotional dispute over how best to teach students with limited English skills is not a matter for the court to decide, U.S. District Judge Charles A. Legge said. “I am not a supreme Board of Education,” Legge said in announcing his ruling from the bench after a hearing. “The voters expressed their policy preference.”
Opponents of Proposition 227 had asked Legge to issue a preliminary injunction putting the measure on hold. They vowed to appeal his ruling, but they would have to win an emergency order from an appeals court to prevent the proposition from taking effect next month.
Barring another turn, Wednesday’s ruling means the end is imminent for a long-standing practice in hundreds of California schools–especially those in cities with high populations of Spanish-speaking immigrants–of teaching students in two languages to help them overcome their inability to speak,
read and write fluent English.
As Legge announced his ruling, Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley businessman who sponsored the Proposition 227 campaign, was sitting immediately behind the dueling squadrons of attorneys who represented various plaintiffs and defendants in the case known as Valeria G. et al. vs. Pete Wilson et al.
Unz drew in his breath and then broke into a broad grin when the judge indicated that he would not nullify the 61%-39% vote favoring the initiative on June 2.
“It’s a tremendous day for the people of California and for all of the children who will now be taught English,” Unz said afterward.
That was not how Jorge Lerma saw it from his seat farther back in the courtroom. Lerma, the principal of a school in Oakland where half the students are not fluent in English, predicted that many educators would now try to subvert the initiative through outright defiance–in the name of the rights of minority children.
“I really fear this is the beginning of some kind of ethnic cleansing,
California-style,” Lerma said.
Marchers Protest Prop. 227
Defiance also was in the air in Los Angeles, where about 200 students,
teachers, parents and activists waved placards and screamed “No on 227!” as they marched through downtown Los Angeles, vowing a grass-roots revolt against implementation of the initiative.
The march, which ended in a spirited rally at the federal courthouse,
was organized by students from Wilson High School and others who said they will find ways to continue bilingual education.
“Implementation is contingent upon cooperation from teachers, parents and children,” said Marshall High School teacher Steve Zimmer. “That cooperation is by no means a given.”
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ruben Zacarias called an emergency staff meeting to discuss the ramifications of Wednesday’s ruling for the state’s largest school district.
Zacarias then announced that he will ask the district’s Board of Education for $1 million to retrain teachers for the new all-English classes. He also indicated that the district will alert parents to their options under the initiative.
“We have been preparing for this for quite a while, and we are as ready as we can be given the time constraints,” Zacarias said. “It’s going to take some time to smooth out the edges. But we want to do, and will do, everything we can to protect the educational interests of our students.”
Proposition 227, which has no equal anywhere in the nation, does not quite ban the use of native-language instruction in classrooms. Instead,
it calls for students to receive intensive English lessons for a period
“not normally intended to exceed” one year and then move into regular English-speaking classrooms after they have a “good working knowledge” of English.
Those mainstream classes, the initiative says, must be taught “overwhelmingly”
in English. The initiative will be in force for all school semesters that start after Aug. 2.
Until now, three of every 10 students with limited English skills in California have been taught in formal bilingual education classes. The rest are taught mainly or entirely in English, with some receiving no special help at all.
California’s fight over bilingual education has been closely watched across the nation, in part because the state for years has had more limited-English students and more students in bilingual education than any other.
The legal challenge to Proposition 227 began the day after the election,
when a coalition of civil rights advocates filed a lawsuit in federal court here alleging that the initiative was unconstitutional and violated federal laws guaranteeing equal access to education.
Similar postelection lawsuits have bottled up other successful initiatives,
such as Proposition 187, which sought to curb public services to illegal immigrants.
Valeria G., the lead plaintiff in the Proposition 227 suit, was identified as a Spanish-speaking, limited-English student in the Calexico school system.
The plaintiffs included several other students statewide, the California Latino Civil Rights Network, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Council of la Raza. They were represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the ACLU and others.
In addition to Gov. Pete Wilson, the defendants were the State Board of Education and Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. Deputies for Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren took the lead in defending the initiative, although Lungren, the Republican candidate for governor, came out against it during the primary campaign.
The plaintiffs argued that the initiative would cause “irreparable harm” by forcing schools to teach many students in a language they can barely understand. While acknowledging that no federal law requires bilingual education, they contended that the initiative violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution by creating high barriers for minority groups that want to reinstate bilingual education.
Proposition 227 may be amended only through another voter initiative or through a law approved by two-thirds of the Legislature.
Attorneys for the state argued, however, that the initiative was not draconian and simply favors an educational policy of language “immersion”
that is followed elsewhere in the country and around the world. They noted that it allows parents to apply for waivers to enable children to continue to receive bilingual teaching under limited circumstances. And schools are still free to use any of several teaching methods so long as English is the dominant classroom language.
The judge agreed that opponents of Proposition 227 had “terribly overstated” the restrictions it would impose. “I think the initiative leaves local educational agencies significant flexibility,” he said.