SAN FRANCISCO — Calling forecasts of dire consequences for minority children “terribly over-stated,” U.S. District Judge Charles Legge refused on Wednesday to block the dismantling of bilingual education in California’s public schools as required by Proposition 227.
The initiative may be applied in a way that meets children’s needs, Legge said. Unless and until it fails, he said, he would not act as a “supreme board of education” to impose his views about educational policy on the state’s voters.
Unless a higher court intervenes, Legge’s ruling means that the anti-bilingual education initiative will go into effect Aug. 2, and “sheltered English immersion” will be the law when 1.4 million children with limited English skills return to school in September.
Under emergency regulations, immersion programs must be designed to teach children enough English in a single school year to transfer into mainstream classrooms, though children may be permitted additional immersion years.
School districts may grant waivers to parents who can demonstrate that their children should stop attending immersion programs after 30 days and return to bilingual classes.
Proposition 227 sponsor Ron Unz said after the ruling that “98 percent” of bilingual programs would be eliminated.
Gov. Pete Wilson said in a prepared statement that Legge acted properly to allow the dismantling of a system that “has failed far too many students for far too long and deprived them of becoming fluent in English.”
On behalf of the state Board of Education, Yvonne W. Larsen, its president, applauded Legge’s “thoughtful consideration of the harm that would result if the educational policy choice of 61 percent of the voters was invalidated,” a reference to the wide margin by which Proposition 227 won at the polls in June.
A coalition of civil rights groups, which sued to block the initiative from taking effect, said they would decide whether to request quick intervention by an appellate court after studying Legge’s 48-page ruling against them.
Immediately after listening to three hours of oral arguments, during which he asked no questions, Legge read aloud a summary of his previously prepared opinion.
Although non-English-speaking students are entitled to be educated, he said, “neither federal law or the Constitution requires bilingual education.”
He said it’s up to the state to choose its procedure, and it’s up to the courts to decide only whether there is “an educational theory” to support the state’s choice.
“I have to conclude that the English immersion system is a valid educational theory,” he said.
He rejected as overblown the civil rights groups’ statements that Proposition 227 would impose a “cookie-cutter” approach, leaving children to “sink or swim” after a year in which they would learn insufficient English and fall behind in learning the academic curriculum.
Making that argument on Wednesday, Deborah Escobedo, a lawyer with the organization Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy, told Legge, “We simply cannot let them experiment on 1.4 million children. . . . These children are not guinea pigs.”
Abhas Hajela, representing the California School Boards Association, supported the injunction request, saying there was an “overwhelming consensus” that school districts could not launch adequate programs for their non-English speaking students by the start of the school year.
But John Sugiyama, a senior assistant attorney general with the state Justice Department, responded to both arguments.
Some school districts already have immersion programs, he said. Placing children in such programs would not preclude supplemental programs tailored to individual students’ needs, or bar districts from incorporating academic instruction in immersion classes, he said.
“School districts can, if they put their minds to it, implement (the initiative),” he said.
But Jim Sweeney, superintendent of Sacramento City Unified schools, said his is among the many districts still trying to make sense of the proposition and the emergency regulations for implementing it.
He said districts using native language instruction have little time to train teachers in the new approach mandated by the proposition.
Sacramento City has only about 500 of its 15,000 limited-English-proficient students in 25 classrooms where native language instruction is used.
“We always intended to follow the law, and we are working real hard to figure out what all of it means,. . . just the practical implications of how you do something very quickly,” he said.
The Elk Grove Unified District has no traditional bilingual classes, but uses aides who supplement English-speaking teachers, sometimes assisting students in their native languages.
“I don’t believe we’ll dramatically disrupt our program,” said Superintendent Dave Gordon, but he said district officials are studying whether they must change some of the duties of the bilingual aides to comply with the new law.