Lawsuit challenges wording of Prop. 227 teacher liability

Groups take issue with language on standards, damages

Supporters of bilingual education filed suit in federal court to block a provision of Proposition 227, the voter-approved initiative requiring all students to be taught in English.

The lawsuit filed Thursday seeks to overturn a part of Prop. 227 that holds teachers, administrators and school board members “personally liable for fees and actual damages” in case of a civil lawsuit by parents.

“Proposition 227 hangs over teachers’ heads like the Sword of Damocles,” said Carole Shields, president of Washington, D.C.-based People For the American Way Foundation, which is co-counsel in the lawsuit. “We should all be horrified that teachers might be forced to lose their jobs, sacrifice their families and even have their homes taken away.”

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who wrote Prop. 227, called the filing Thursday, “a bit strange.”

“If teachers obey the law, nothing will happen to them,” Unz said. “They only face risk if they willfully and repeatedly violate the law. Individuals who refuse to obey other laws certainly face consequences.”

Unz pointed out that a federal judge had refused in July to block implementation of Prop. 227, approved by 61 percent of voters June 2. The law abolished most bilingual education programs for California’s 1.4 million children who speak little or no English. It replaced such programs with English-only instruction.

“It’s not clear that these arguments are any different than those raised before,” Unz said, referring to the previous suit, an appeal of which is pending. “I guess they feel if they repeat the same argument enough times, they’ll eventually find a judge who will agree with them.”

Plaintiffs in the suit, however, say the proposition is not clearly defined. They point to wording in the law stating that classroom instruction must be “overwhelmingly in English,” but without an explanation of “overwhelmingly” constitutes.

Tim O’Brien, deputy director of the People for the American Way Foundation’s California office, said the plaintiffs in the suit are not attempting to argue the merits of Prop. 227. Instead, he said, teachers need clear standards on how the statute should be implemented, and need to know that if they make a mistake, they will not face “potentially devastating lawsuits.”

Unz, however, said it was unlikely teachers would be penalized.

“We really have always felt the most appropriate targets of our action would be the senior administrators and elected officials of schools that are not complying with the law,” Unz said.

Other plaintiffs in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, include the California Teachers Association, the Association of California School Administrators, the Association of Mexican-American Educations and the National Association of Bilingual Educators.

The California Federation of Teachers, which is not a plaintiff, also asserts that Prop. 227 is ambiguously written and poses a risk to teachers.

“I think folks who have been looking for vulnerabilities in 227 have found it in this provision,” said Mary Bergan, head of the 55,000-member CFT. “People have questions about what “overwhelmingly’ means. But we’ve been telling our folks to be very familiar with the law, and obey it.”

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