Ruling -- just another day at Orange Unified

EDUCATION: It becomes the fourth county school district to obtain the bilingual instruction waiver.

Leave it to the Orange Unified School District to land right in the middle of the latest skirmish in the battle over bilingual education.

Orange Unified’s decision last year to end bilingual instruction in favor of an English-immersion program has resulted in a judge’s ruling that appears to have overturned the state Board of Education’s right to control such decisions.

Just another day at Orange Unified, which has grabbed headlines recently as its “back to basics” school board has initiated other changes such as barring psychological counselors from campus.

“This ruling takes the pressure off,” said Martin Jacobson,
a school board member who helped usher through the English-immersion curriculum change.

Now, said Orange Unified Assistant Superintendent Neil McKinnon, the 29,000-student district will not have to go through the time and expense involved with petitioning the state board later this month for an extension of the bilingual waiver.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald B. Robie ruled that the state board does not have the authority to force districts to seek its approval for the discontinuation of bilingual instruction programs.

“We can get on with what we want to do,” Jacobson said.

Orange was the fourth California school district — all in Orange County
— to obtain a bilingual waiver from the state board. The other three districts are Westminster, Magnolia and Savanna.

The bilingual education battle in California began in 1976, when the state Assembly enacted the Bilingual-Bicultural Act. It outlined how local school districts should provide instruction to students whose primary language was not English. The law required academic instruction for non-English-speaking students in their primary language.

In 1986, the Legislature enacted a “sunset” provision which was to end the bilingual act. The Legislature did not enact new law to continue the program, but the state Board of Education determined that it was legally obligated to enforce the provisions of the state bilingual law.

That approach apparently is in jeopardy now, although all sides still are debating the impact of the ruling. McKinnon and Bill Lucia, executive director of the state Board of Education, said the ruling means districts will have more latitude; Deborah Escobedo, attorney for the plaintiffs,
disagreed, saying the ruling means districts will have to abide by the traditional structures of bilingual instruction.

And then there is Ron Unz, the Palo Alto entrepreneur who is leading a drive in support of a proposition which would require school districts to engage in English-immersion instruction.

“It seems like an ambiguous legal ruling, with everyone disagreeing on what it means,” Unz said. “But as a practical matter, it probably won’t affect that many students. The vast majority of bilingual programs are in large school districts (such as in Los Angeles and Santa Ana) which are totally committed to bilingual instruction and aren’t likely to change.”

Other reaction to the ruling was mixed. “Anything that the state can do to make it easier for schools to implement their best plans is a good idea,” said Trish Cannady, spokeswoman for the Westminster school district. “It sounds like the courts are granting more local control to schools.”

Janice White, a parent and former PTA representative in Orange, sounded a note of caution: “I hope that districts aren’t going to crop out all their bilingual programs and replace them with something that does not have a lot of thought put into it.”

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