Civil rights leaders in California filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the legality of Proposition 227, the controversial initiative that eliminates a school’s option to teach bilingual education.
The action came less than 24 hours after voters overwhelmingly approved the measure in California, where nearly 1.4 million children are not fluent in English.
In Texas, bilingual education supporters said they were relieved this state requires a hearings and scrutiny process before legislators turn ideas into law.
“I’m glad I’m a Texan,” said state Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, who said he would protect the program against any attacks in the state Legislature.
“I don’t know of any member (of the Legislature) who is Hispanic and is opposed to the program,” Madla said. “This is a tool that we have made available to those citizens who have a language other than English, and we need to continue to make it available.”
Most children identified as being “language minorities” speak Spanish, making the California initiative a hot button topic for Hispanic civil rights groups.
California, unlike Texas, has an initiative process that allows any state resident to collect enough signatures on a petition to put issues onto a ballot for state voter approval.
This was the process voters used to limit immigrant access to state services, including education, and to curb the use of affirmative action in state contracting and college admissions.
But like those successful initiatives, Proposition 227 will face a legal challenge launched by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union in a San Francisco federal court.
“The proposition makes it impossible for the parents of limited- English-proficient students to advocate for the kinds of programs they believe are vital to the future success of their children,” said Antonio Hernandez, MALDEF president and general counsel.
The groups’ leaders argue the proposition, which is supposed to take effect in 60 days, violates the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Software millionaire Ron Unz, the proposition’s author, pronounced it “ironclad constitutional.” Instead of taking bilingual education classes, language minority children will be placed in an intensive one-year course under Unz’s proposition.
One California educator said he wasn’t going to count on any legal injunctions or challenges. Instead, elementary school principal Michael Jones said he will apply to have his campus become a publicly funded charter school so his teachers could continue to using a dual- language bilingual education program.
“My staff is depressed and demoralized and it’s a sad day,” said Jones, whose Alianza Elementary School is located 11/2 miles south of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast.
“We’re focused on what to do to maintain the program, perhaps through a waiver or through becoming a charter school,” Jones said.
San Francisco school officials, meanwhile, voted to continue bilingual programs until ordered to stop them, and to pay the legal bills of any teacher sued for violating the measure.
“It’s an absurd measure which has no educational basis and would set our students back 30 years,” school board president Carlota del Portillo said.
Bilingual education supporters in Texas said they expected Proposition 227 would pass. More than 3.2 million ballots, or 61 percent of the vote, were for the initiative.
“With the way the initiative process has been manipulated by people with narrow agendas and lots of money, I’m surprised that it wasn’t more than 40 percent who said no,” said Robert Milk, director of the University of Texas at San Antonio bilingual-bicultural studies program.
Although Milk said he was concerned about ripple effects, he said he was confident Texas’ political system would provide shelter against attacks.
Gov. George W. Bush said bilingual education, like all instructional programs, needs to be measured and held accountable.
“The ability to speak English is key to success in America. If a bilingual program is not teaching children to read and comprehend in English as quickly as possible, it should be eliminated,” he said.
“But if a bilingual program is helping to achieve the goal of teaching children to read and comprehend in English, then we should applaud it and say well done.”
Bush pointed to the state’s testing and accountability system as a means of determining whether the state should modify its support of the program. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses said the system holds schools accountable for teaching the more than 500,000 children whose primary language is not English.
“I do think that we have many programs that are very successful,” Moses said. “We some that have to be questioned, but we have a means of determining whether or not we’re getting results.”
Moses said the question of whether bilingual education, English as a second language or Unz’s one-year immersion program were best for children should be left to schools to decide.
“This is not something that you can prescribe one program to,” he said.
Unz said he predicted many states will begin adjusting their programs. significantly.
“Many other states … will now be evaluating their bilingual education,” he said.
In Texas, aides for Senate Interim Education Committee chairman Teel Bivins said proposals for next year’s legislative session that could affect bilingual education were adjustments and not wholesale changes.
The committee is considering creating incentives to increase the number of qualified bilingual education teachers in the state and possibly reducing the number of years a student is allowed to stay in the program.
Representatives of the Texas Conservative Coalition, which expressed concern over bilingual education in the past, said they are not now taking a strong stand against bilingual education.
Nonetheless, bilingual education teachers nationwide are worried, said Josefina Villamil Tinajero, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education.
“They are very much concerned about what has happened in California because there’s always questions by people in their districts about whether they should do something similar,” said Tinajero, assistant dean of education at the University of Texas-El Paso. “But for the most part, we have put things in place that send the message that we are serious about bilingual education and the work here is to enhance the program.”
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.
– See www.expressnew.com/extras/bilingual for an Express-News report on bilingual education.