District Faces Fight For Bilingual Waiver

Education: Even if skeptical State Board members approve Orange's plan to drop language program, federal officials have concerns of their own.

As Orange Unified School District heads toward a showdown vote today in its bid to scrap bilingual education, federal regulators are warning that the plan could violate the rights of some special education students who aren’t fluent in English.

In addition to the red flag raised suddenly this week by the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, the district must also overcome firm opposition from the staff advising the State Board of Education.

Orange is seeking to become the largest district in the state in recent years to win a waiver from traditional bilingual education. Its schools serve about 29,000 students in Orange, Villa Park and parts of Anaheim, Santa Ana and Garden Grove. About a fourth don’t speak fluent English, and most of those are from Spanish-speaking homes.

In 1996, the latest year for which statewide figures were available, Orange taught 1,576 students through Spanish. The new program would teach those students–who are mostly in the primary grades–in English, with some help from bilingual classroom aides and after-school tutors. The district also is proposing special English classes for pre-kindergarten students and for summer school.

As the state board weighs the proposal, federal regulators are raising last-minute questions.

In letters sent Tuesday to the state board and district Supt. Robert L. French, the federal civil rights office said it has “serious concerns” about a “dramatic shift” in how schools teach students with limited English whose disabilities require special education. In 1994, Orange educators agreed to give extra help to such students after federal regulators found that the district had discriminated against them.

The letters did not specify how many students could be affected by a switch. French was traveling Wednesday and unavailable for comment.

Martin Jacobson, president of the Orange school board, said the regulators were off base.

“The federal government should mind its own business and let us do the job we were elected to do,” Jacobson said. “By teaching the students English, we’re doing the best thing for them for their future in this country.”

Rodger Murphey, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said he would not speculate on what might happen if the state board gives Orange the green light.

The state board holds final power over bilingual waivers under California law. With one vacancy on the 11-seat board and four members expected to be absent today, approval of the application would require votes of all the six members at the meeting.

But Murphey said, “The state cannot . . . override a federal requirement.”

State bilingual regulators have their own objections. They say the district–unlike three others in Orange County that have won bilingual waivers in the past two years–has resisted establishing credible standards to measure student progress if bilingual education is ditched.

The Orange proposal comes as the state Legislature is considering reforms to bilingual education.

State Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) is seeking to give educators more leeway to decide how they teach students who speak little English. Her bill, SB 6, has passed the state Senate and is now in the Assembly.

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