Orange schools can proceed with English-only instruction

COURTS: Bilingual advocates fail to convince a judge that Spanish speakers would be harmed.

SACRAMENTO – The Orange Unified School District can proceed with English-only instruction after bilingual advocates failed Wednesday to convince a federal judge that Spanish- speaking students would suffer irreparable harm if they are not taught in their native language.

“We’re in business,” Superintendent Robert French said of plans to eliminate Spanish-language instruction for about 1,300 of the district’s 30,000 students. “My direction will be to ease into it as soon as possible.”

U.S. District Court Judge William B. Shubb lifted a temporary restraining order barring the district from eliminating bilingual classes and sent the case back to Sacramento County Superior Court, where the lawsuit was filed in August more than a month after classes began for hundreds of affected students.

Cynthia Rice, attorney for parents and Hispanic rights groups behind the lawsuit, said she expected a more favorable ruling from Superior Court because state laws have upheld students’ rights to instruction in their native language. She urged Orange Unified to preserve its remaining bilingual classes to spare students the stress of a new program.

“It’s our hope the district will do the right thing and not disrupt these children’s lives,” said Rice, an attorney for Sonoma- based California Rural Legal Assistance.

About 25 percent of Orange Unified’s 30,000 students speak limited English,
but only 4 percent of all students study part-time in Spanish. The district would need about 45 classes for Spanish speakers, but 28 of its bilingual teachers left after the school board approved its English-only plan in May.

Instead of teaching in Spanish, Orange Unified will now provide limited-English students with after-school, summer school, pre- kindergarten and parent-education programs to help them academically. Those programs cost about $200,000 for materials, aides and teacher training, French said. Attorney fees for the lawsuits and hearings before the State Board of Education cost the district another $200,000, he said.

“We’re not doing this to save money,” French said. “We’re doing this to save kids.”

In his 17-page order, Shubb wrote that federal law requires an “appropriate education” for limited-English students, not “bilingual education.”
He also wrote that decisions on curriculum should be left to local school districts, not federal courts.

“The alleged difference between two sound (Limited English Proficient)
educational theories – (English immersion) and bilingual instruction – is inadequate to demonstrate irreparable harm,” he wrote.

The ruling comes amid growing controversy over how California’s 1.3 million limited-English speaking students should be taught. The state’s bilingual-education law expired in 1987, and a bill to revise the law is stalled in the Legislature.

An initiative to require all districts to teach in English, sponsored by Santa Ana teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman and San Francisco businessman Ron Unz, is nearing its goal of 600,000 signatures to qualify for the June 1998 ballot.

Orange Unified’s efforts to teach only in English drew national attention,
but other Orange County school districts have dropped bilingual instruction with little fanfare. Westminster, Magnolia and Savanna school districts already have been quietly granted waivers. Orange’s plan was complicated from the outset by complaints that the district’s bilingual programs violated a variety of federal and state guidelines.

Only 20,000 – 16 percent – of Orange County’s 127,000 limited- English students were taught in their native languages in 1996. Statewide, the figure was 29 percent.

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