From win at polls to court goes 227

Bilingual education supporters files suit

Thirteen hours after the polls closed Tuesday night, opponents of Proposition 227 filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in an effort to preserve bilingual education in California’s public schools.

Meanwhile, school districts across the state began scrambling to revamp the way they teach the state’s 1.4 million students who aren’t fluent in English when classes resume this fall.

Proposition 227 requires those students to spend a full school year in a “sheltered English immersion” class before placing them in a mainstream classroom. The yearlong class will focus on teaching the students English, not arithmetic or other subjects.

Unless blocked by the courts, the initiative takes effect in 60 days.

With 61 percent of voters supporting the measure, the message rang loud and clear that public schools should teach only in English. San Francisco and Alameda were the only two counties that registered a majority of votes against the measure. In Alameda County, 55 percent of the voters opposed it.

But among those in Alameda County who did support Proposition 227, the sentiment was similar to that expressed by voters elsewhere.

“If anyone comes to this country, let them learn English,” Alameda resident Mary Alice Osborne said. “If we give them all the privileges in the world in this country, why can’t they learn English? If they want a foreign language, let them learn it at home.”

But representatives of the six nonprofit community activist groups who filed the lawsuit said at a Wednesday morning press conference that even though the voters have spoken, the measure nonetheless violates civil rights laws and federal education statutes.

“The voters have to comply with the Constitution,” said Ed Chen of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “There are times when the voters will violate the Constitution … and the role of the courts is to protect the Constitution from the tyranny of the majority.”

The suit names Gov. Pete Wilson, the state Board of Education and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin as defendants.

Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software millionaire who co-wrote the measure, said bilingual education has failed for three decades and it is time for change.

Unz and the initiative’s supporters had predicted support for the measure would cross party and ethnic lines. Exit polls projected that Latino voters favored the measure.

“I think overall it is a very important step forward that the people of California have taken,” he said. “I think the opposition doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on.”

The opposition’s 29-page complaint, alleges the measure will force children into “a superficially alluring, yet educationally simplistic scheme that finds no support whatever in sound educational theory, research or practice.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they will file a motion in a few days to suspend the law’s implementation until the case is decided.

Wednesday, school districts everywhere were mulling their options. Some wondered whether to even prepare to dismantle their bilingual education programs.

A handful of local districts, including Oakland, Livermore and New Haven, are considering filing a waiver with the State Board of Education to avoid complying with Prop. 227. Grounds for waivers could be that current programs are successful or that districts cannot comply by the fall.

“Everyone is at a loss as to how we’re going to implement it,” Oakland schools Superintendent Carole Quan said.

“We’re caught both legally and morally in a tough situation,” added Jean Quan, an Oakland school board member. “We’re not going to do anything that hurts children in this city, not while I’m on this board.”

Districts also were waiting for guidance from the state Department of Education on how to implement the measure.

“We have a very successful bilingual program. Our parents are very supportive of it and the kids learn English well and quickly,” Livermore Valley Joint Unified District Assistant Superintendent Bob Bronzan said. “At least for a little bit of time, we have some time to work this thing through.”

San Francisco schools Superintendent Bill Rojas said his district will not change anything it is doing.

“If they wish us to do something different, I would suggest they gather up their energy and come and get us,” he said, referring to the California Department of Education.

Some bilingual education teachers across the state also have said they will buck the law and continue to teach children in their native tongue, even though Prop. 227 allows parents to sue instructors who do not comply.

“I will defy the law,” said Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez, a teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in San Francisco. “This law takes away the reason I became a teacher.”

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