SACRAMENTO ? California school districts won broad new freedoms Thursday to drop bilingual education programs when the state Board of Education decided it has no authority to order local districts to teach children in their primary language.
The decision is a landmark development in the years-long battle over bilingual education in California. It comes amid a bitter debate over a June ballot initiative that would all but eliminate bilingual programs across the state. And it might make moot a legislative skirmish over whether local districts should have more flexibility to design their programs.
The board, reacting to a recent court decision and a petition from the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, acknowledged it had kept its bilingual education mandate in place in violation of state law for more than 10 years.
From now on, the board ruled, local districts need not seek special permission to replace bilingual education with English-only programs.
The decision probably will not have much immediate effect in Orange County,
where only 13 percent of the county’s 134,000 limited-English students received instruction in Spanish last year. And school leaders in Anaheim and Santa Ana, two districts with the largest populations of limited-English students,
said they have no plans to change their programs in light of the state board decision.
Only four districts in the state – all in Orange County – have ever received a bilingual waiver from the state.
Sharon Browne, the Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer whose petition helped trigger the board’s action, hailed the decision as “far-reaching.”
One-quarter of the students in California – a total of 1.4 million – are classified as not fluent in English; 30 percent of those receive bilingual instruction.
“The state board has recognized that local school districts have the ability and the authority to implement English-learner programs that they believe are best for their students,” Browne said.
But others, including lawyers for the state Department of Education,
said the board overstepped its authority Thursday and predicted that lawsuits challenging the board’s action or the decisions of individual districts will happen.
“English learners must have an instructional program that provides them equitable education opportunities,” said Maria Quezada, president of the California Association for Bilingual Education.
Nativo Lopez, president of the Santa Ana Unified school board, said state oversight is needed to make sure local districts don’t neglect needy students.
“Historically, local control meant ignoring the needs of language minorities,” he said. “This is political subterfuge to impose the English-only edict of Gov. (Pete) Wilson and the crowd he runs with.”
Bilingual education was mandated explicitly in state law until 1987,
when the statute lapsed. The Legislature then voted to continue funding for the programs and leave the oversight to the state Board of Education.
Not much changed because the board, following advice of the Department of Education, required that schools teach students in their native language whenever possible.
But a Sacramento Superior Court judge, in a lawsuit challenging a waiver granted to Orange Unified School District, ruled last week that the state board couldn’t grant waivers because the bilingual requirement the board was waiving no longer was on the books.
Orange Unified officials were ecstatic Thursday.
“It’s about time,” said Bill Lewis, president of the Orange Unified school board. “We’ve argued all along that the state board had no legal authority to oversee this process. It would have been nice to see this a few years ago, before we expended so much time and money.”
But other Orange County school officials said the ruling probably will change little at the classroom level.
Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Santa Ana teacher co-sponsoring the English for the Children Initiative, applauded the board’s decision but said it doesn’t go far enough. School districts with strong pro-bilingual lobbies, such as Santa Ana and Anaheim, will continue to teach students in Spanish unless her ballot measure is approved, she said.
“The problem isn’t solved, isn’t over,” said Matta Tuchman,
who is also a candidate for state Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Benny Hernandez, board president of the Anaheim City School District,
where about 60 percent of students are limited-English speakers, said the state ruling won’t change anything in his district.
“The programs we have now are showing great results,” he said.
“Kids are learning English and transferring at the second- or third-grade level. I don’t think it’s going to change anything, because we’re proud of programs in our district.”
Anaheim uses a mix of bilingual and English-only programs. Last year,
8.8 percent of those students were reclassified from limited to fluent English.
The county average was 5.8 percent.
Orange County schools have led California in dismantling bilingual education programs. Westminster, Magnolia, Savanna and Orange Unified received general waivers from the state requirement to teach limited English students in their native language.
And several other districts – Tustin, Saddleback Valley and Garden Grove Unified – have opted out of the program because of a lack of qualified teachers and a pledge to meet performance goals based on test scores of limited-English students.