Rights groups sue to block Prop. 227

S.J. Unified to seek waiver from Prop. 227

Just hours after voters overwhelmingly supported a measure to end bilingual education, civil rights groups launched their counterattack Wednesday, appealing to the courts to help schools keep their special language programs.

The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, along with a half-dozen other civil rights groups, filed a class-action federal lawsuit alleging that Proposition 227 violates the civil rights of non-English speaking children by requiring them all to be taught in English.

The groups said they would seek an injunction this week to prevent the initiative from taking effect in 60 days, as the law now requires.

At the same time, several school districts –including San Jose Unified
— confirmed they planned to ask the State Board of Education next month for waivers from all the provisions of the initiative.

“We are seeking an exemption from the Education Code,” said Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Jack McLaughlin. “We want to protect our valuable programs.”

Proposition 227 passed handily at the polls Tuesday, garnering 60 percent of the 5.3 million votes cast.

The ballot measure, conceived by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz,
requires nearly all public school instruction to be in English, except where parents ask for waivers. The 1.4 million school children who speak little or no English would spend a year in an intensive English program and then make the transition into regular classrooms.

Districts have 60 days to implement the new policy.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, was brought on behalf of eight children represented by their parents, the American Civil Liberties Union, Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Asian Law Caucus,
Employment Law Center and Public Advocates Inc.

“Proposition 227 will take us back 25 years to when students were denied an equal access to education,” said Theodore Wang, an attorney with Chinese for Affirmative Action. “The result is that they will be further isolated from those who participate fully in the educational system. Proposition 227 silences and deafens the children who do not speak English.”

Cite laws on access, rights

In their suit, the plaintiffs allege that the initiative violates the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, among other laws.

None of those laws require schools to teach children in their home language.
But they are designed to prevent schools and states from denying equal educational and political access to minorities and students with limited English skills.

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act, for example, orders schools
“to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instruction programs.”

The suit argues that by banning bilingual instruction and creating an
“untested” English immersion program, Proposition 227 prevents schools from meeting the needs of students who might require instruction in their home language to compete academically.

Proposition 227 includes provisions allowing parents to ask for bilingual instruction under certain circumstances. But critics said the waiver process is so restrictive and confusing that it effectively prevents many parents from getting what they want for their children.

“These parents already face great obstacles to getting involved in our educational system,” said Deborah Escobedo of Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy. “To suggest that immigrant parents can pop into school to avail themselves of a waiver process that is so complicated even the lawyers in this room can’t understand it. . . . No, there is no choice.”

The groups also argue that the ballot measure conflicts with the equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by making it harder for minorities to take advantage of the political process.
ACLU attorney Ed Chen said Proposition 227 undermines minority parents’
political power because it makes it difficult for them to petition school boards for bilingual education programs.

“To single out minorities is a distortion of the political process,”
Chen said.

Suing Wilson, schools chief

The defendants in the suit are Gov. Pete Wilson, the State Board of Education and state schools chief Delaine Eastin. The state Attorney General’s Office will be called upon to defend the suit.

Unz said a group of unidentified lawyers in Los Angeles was prepared to help to defend the initiative.

“We certainly have expected the legal challenge,” Unz said.
“But I do not think they have a legal leg to stand on.”

Wilson’s office did not return calls seeking comment. Eastin’s office said the state superintendent intends to “uphold the will of the people”
until a court orders otherwise. In the meantime, Eastin will be sending school districts guidance on how to comply with the initiative, spokesman Doug Stone said.

Several districts, though, have already decided to try to get around the English-only guidelines. In addition to Berkeley, educators in San Jose,
Oakland and possibly San Francisco plan to ask the State Board of Education for waivers from Proposition 227 at its July meeting.

The San Jose board has scheduled a June 29 meeting to solicit public comment on that plan.

“We’re not going to implement it just because it’s law,” said board President Rich Garcia. “Our main concern is how to keep kids from suffering in a program that is not suited for them.”

San Jose school officials already are under federal court order to provide bilingual services for Spanish speaking students, which may offer them another exemption from Proposition 227.

The likelihood of the waiver requests succeeding is uncertain, though.

Rae Belisle, the attorney for the state board, said she doubted it could waive the provisions of Proposition 227 because the board gets its authority from the state Legislature. Lawmakers would have to first express an interest in modifying the initiative, she said. Even if they did, any changes to the initiative would have to maintain its original intent.

Profiling initiative’s supporters

Meanwhile, a picture of who supported the initiative began to emerge Wednesday. According to a CNN-Los Angeles Times exit poll, 67 percent of white voters supported the measure, 57 percent of Asians voted for it and 48 percent of black voters supported it.

Among Latino voters, who were closely watched throughout the campaign,
just 37 percent voted yes. Unz had said repeatedly that he wanted to do well among Latino voters so that his initiative would not be viewed as racially divisive.

He disputed the exit poll’s numbers, noting that statewide public opinion polls had pegged Latino support closer to 50 or 60 percent.


Mercury News Staff Writer Lori Aratani contributed to this report

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