It cost Denver Public Schools $126,000 to finance a fight with federal authorities that ended with the district getting the bilingual program it wanted before the dispute began.
The money would have been better spent on four teachers, said district officials, who settled the case a week ago with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Especially considering that federal watchdogs gave up virtually all their claims and embraced the district’s viewpoint after nearly two years of arguing, said Superintendent Irv Moskowitz.
”We had lots of turns, but all of our fundamentals are there,” he said.
Justice officials, however, said their involvement made the plan better. ”We believe it will greatly improve the education of thousands of students,” spokeswoman Christine Diburtello said. ”It was well worth the effort for both parties.”
The private law firm of Arnold and Porter was paid $71,636, according to DPS records. The firm, which has offices in Denver and Washington, D.C., was hired for its expertise in dealing with federal agencies.
An estimated $54,000 went for six negotiating trips to Washington for Moskowitz, board member Rita Montero, and three other district officials.
Bilingual education was required by the federal court in 1984 after Hispanic teachers sued the district. At that time there were 5,500 bilingual students. This year there are approximately 14,000 – 20 percent of the district’s 66,000 students. Ninety percent of the bilingual students speak Spanish.
Federal Judge Richard Matsch ordered DPS to pay $180,000 in lawyer’s fees for the victorious Hispanic teachers in that case.
Shifting political and education attitudes help explain why the recent dispute sputtered.
In the past two years, mainstreaming students as quickly as possible has become more accepted. English is much more emphasized than teaching students their native language. That’s what DPS advocates.
”Had this investigation taken place today, I think it would have been resolved much quicker,” board member Elaine Berman said.
The battle began in mid-1997, soon after the district announced a new bilingual approach to give parents more influence and put students in regular classes in three years whenever possible.
The district wanted the decision to enroll or remove students from bilingual classes based on more than one standardized test. Tests results, oral ability, class performance and teacher observations were also necessary, according to the plan.
But after a two-year inquiry, the regional office of the U.S. Department of Education accused the district of discriminating against non-English-speaking students by offering poor instruction and materials.
The department disagreed with most of the district’s plan. It wanted students in bilingual classes from five to seven years.
”It came down to an ideological issue,” Moskowitz said.
The education department eventually sent the case to the Department of Justice for a possible lawsuit. Justice officials were more receptive to trends in bilingual education, Moskowitz said. It also wanted a settlement to let DPS get on with its teaching business, he said.
The district agreed to have University of Colorado professor Ernest House monitor the program for the federal government.