Prop. 227 court challenge fails

Bilingual education: It appears schools will have to abide by the initiative when the new term begins.

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge Wednesday dealt a swift and enfeebling blow to a lawsuit challenging the legality of Proposition 227 and upheld the voter-approved measure that all but eliminates bilingual education in California. The ruling probably will ensure that the state’s school districts will be forced to comply with the proposition’s provisions when classes begin in September.

In a 48-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Charles Legge concluded that Proposition 227 is constitutional on its face and refused a request from a coalition of civil rights organizations to block its enforcement. The judge, who expressed his reluctance to upend the will of the state’s electorate, released his opinion shortly after a 3 1/2-hour hearing packed with supporters and foes of the controversial initiative.

“This court is not a Supreme Board of Education,” Legge observed, citing the spirited debate over bilingual education in California.

“It is not the province of this court to impose on the people of California its view of which is the better education policy,” he added. “The voters of California expressed their policy preference by enacting Proposition 227.”

Barring unforeseen legal developments, Legge’s ruling marks the strongest signal yet that school districts should be resigned to following Proposition 227’s guidelines for teaching non-English-speaking students by Aug. 2, when the law is slated to go into effect. The state Board of Education just last week handed down regulations outlining how school districts must comply with the initiative.

Intervention unlikely

While civil rights lawyers vowed to appeal Legge’s decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, it is highly unlikely the federal appellate court would immediately intervene to freeze implementation of Proposition 227 before the Aug. 2 deadline or the start of the school year. The appellate courts are generally reluctant to stay a voter-approved law such as Proposition 227, particularly when a trial judge already has found no compelling reason to put it on hold.

As a result, supporters of Proposition 227 were confident that the law will not be locked up by a protracted legal struggle.

“I’m extremely pleased with the verdict,” said Proposition 227 author Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley businessman who sat in the front row of the courtroom gallery as Legge read excerpts of his decision.

“It’s a tremendous victory for the people of California and, most important, for the hundreds of thousands of young children who will be beginning the school year in September,” Unz added.

State Attorney General Dan Lungren, whose office defended Gov. Pete Wilson even while Lungren opposed the proposition, deferred comment to the governor. Wilson, who has been critical of federal judges in the past for blocking other state ballot initiatives, echoed Unz’s sentiments.

“I am pleased that the court has upheld the will of an overwhelming majority of Californians who voted to end the state’s failed bilingual education program,” Wilson said.

“The court has acted properly to let the democratic process stand,” he said, “despite the efforts of a determined group of special interests who sought to thwart the will of the people .?.?. by challenging Proposition 227 without giving it a chance.”

Meanwhile, civil rights groups warned that Legge’s ruling spells trouble for non-English-speaking students throughout the state and for the majority of school districts lined up against the abolition of bilingual education.

Those foes also maintained that Legge’s ruling, which came just hours after a morning protest outside the San Francisco federal building, is vulnerable on appeal.

“We are disappointed the judge did not recognize that what the (state) is doing is unlawful,” said Thomas Saenz, an attorney with the Los Angeles office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “This case will certainly go forward. The decision places a tremendous burden on the school districts of California.”

Immersion plan

Under Proposition 227, which was approved by 61 percent of the state’s voters June 2, nearly all public school instruction will have to be in English, except where parents ask for waivers. The nearly 1.4 million schoolchildren who speak little or no English would spend a year in an “immersion program” and then make the transition into regular classrooms.

Civil rights lawyers argue that the ballot measure illegally deprives the state’s minority students of equal access to a public education. The lawsuit alleges that Proposition 227 violates federal civil rights law, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 and the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Until the Proposition 227 case, the courts had gone a long time without addressing a state’s obligation to teach non-English-speaking students. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that schools must provide such students some form of special instruction, but it did not mandate bilingual education.

A 1981 appeals court ruling in a Texas case created a standard that orders schools to “take appropriate action to overcome language barriers” in classes.

But as Legge stressed in his ruling, no court has established a constitutional requirement to provide bilingual education. The judge found that any legal infirmities in Proposition 227 are purely speculative at this stage. He rejected the argument that the law places a discriminatory burden on minority students and violates the 1974 federal statute requiring schools to accommodate non-English-speaking students.

Burden of proof

The judge indicated that the groups challenging the law could return to court later with proof that Proposition 227, once implemented, had amounted to a setback for the state’s minority students. However, Legge cautioned that he does not share the belief held by Proposition 227 opponents that the law will cause untold harm to non-English-speaking students.

“I do think the plaintiffs’ characterization of (Proposition 227) as a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, straitjacket approach is powerful advocacy, but in my opinion terribly overstated,” the judge said in court. “I think the initiative leaves agencies with significant flexibility (to create programs for children).”

Legge, a conservative 1984 Reagan appointee, moved extraordinarily quickly in deciding the Proposition 227 case in just more than a month. Recent court challenges to California voter initiatives such as propositions 209, 140 and 187 have taken from several months to several years to reach the appeals stage.

Legge said in court that he “accelerated” his handling of the case because he “realized that school districts need to know what the consequences might be.”

The 9th Circuit would have to move in a matter of weeks to alter the post-Proposition 227 landscape in the coming school year — a development considered a long shot by legal experts.

“It’s unlikely the 9th Circuit would step in,” Sacramento law Professor J. Clark Kelso said. “I don’t think the 9th Circuit could find the circumstances to justify an emergency stay, particularly where a trial judge has issued such a lengthy opinion.”

Maybe next year

If the 9th Circuit does not grant immediate relief to civil rights groups challenging the law, the appeal process could easily last into next year. Even if the 9th Circuit upholds Proposition 227, civil rights lawyers can return to court down the road to try to prove the law as applied has resulted in harm to non-English-speaking students.

In the meantime, those advocates say they will consult with schools and parents to try to capitalize on Proposition 227’s waiver provisions, which they hope may keep some bilingual education programs intact.

“The general public should know they are going to be affected by this,” said Deborah Escobedo, one of the lead plaintiff attorneys. “(Limited English) children are going to be placed in mainstream classrooms. This is going to have profound, horrible ramifications for these children.”

In addition to more than a half-dozen civil rights organizations, numerous school districts and the California School Boards Association had urged Legge to block enforcement of Proposition 227.

On the flip side, the state Board of Education, a defendant in the suit, was represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative Sacramento group, and another conservative legal organization, the Mountain States Legal Foundation, sided with the state in a friend-of-the-court brief, as did Unz’s organization, One Nation/One California.

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