School bilingual program backers win chance to make their case

Judge rules state must consider Prop. 227 waiver requests

OAKLAND – Supporters of bilingual education won a victory when a judge ordered the state Board of Education to consider allowing school districts to keep bilingual programs despite voter approval of anti-bilingual Proposition 227.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Henry Needham refused Thursday to block local enforcement of Prop. 227, which requires districts to replace bilingual education with English immersion.

But he ruled that the California Board of Education must consider a school district’s request for a waiver, which would let it keep its entire bilingual program.

The ruling pleased backers of bilingual education.

“We are extremely pleased because this maintains flexibility and discretion at the local level,” said William Quinn Jr., an attorney for the Berkeley, Hayward and Oakland school districts, which sued the Department of Education and state schools chief Delaine Eastin.

The local districts filed suit after the Board of Education refused to consider waivers earlier this summer, contending it had no authority to grant them for entire school districts. The board was advised by the office of the state legislative counsel and its staff attorneys that it could not legally consider the waivers.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley software developer who chaired the Prop. 227 campaign, said he was miffed by Needham’s ruling and believed it violated the state Constitution.

“We think it is completely incorrect,” Unz said. “The Constitution says that an initiative voted in by the people can only be amended by the people or the Legislature and not by an elected board.”

Unz said lawyers who had helped put together the proposition would work on an appeal immediately.

Local school district leaders had a very different reaction to the judge’s ruling.

“We think it’s a good decision,” said Joe Symkowick, the San Francisco School District’s legal counsel. “We don’t think it could have gone any other way.”

Symkowick said he believed Needham’s decision would stand because the California education code allowed waivers for any provision in the code, including Prop. 227, unless otherwise stated.

Attorneys for the East Bay districts agreed.

“The code says that waivers shall be granted unless the education needs of children cannot be met,” said Celia Ruiz, also an attorney for the Hayward, Berkeley and Oakland school districts.

Ruiz said she was confident that the local districts would show that their bilingual education programs were meeting the needs of children and helping them to learn English.

But Deputy Attorney General Angela Botelho, who represented the state board in court, noted that Prop. 227 contained declarations that bilingual education was harmful to students and that English immersion was helpful. The board might rely on those statements to deny any waivers, she said.

The board will probably decide whether to appeal the ruling at its next meeting, Sept. 9-11 in Sacramento, said board attorney Rae Belisle. She declined to predict the board’s attitude toward any waiver requests it had to consider.

Prop. 227, approved by 61 percent of the voters, has been upheld by federal courts and takes effect with the new school term, already under way in some parts of the state.

With East Bay schools about to open for the year, educators there said they were relieved by the news of Needham’s ruling.

“Our basic premise is that native instruction belongs in the classroom and that Prop. 227’s guidelines are too restrictive,” said Berkeley School District Superintendent Jack McGlaughlin.

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