School district in race lawsuit

Anti-bilingual group takes on Oakland

OAKLAND — Comparing the plight of a black American kindergartner in a Chinatown school to that of an immigrant who speaks no English, a powerful anti-bilingual group has filed suit against the Oakland school district.

The suit was filed in Alameda County Superior Court Tuesday on behalf of George Louie and his son Travell by the Pacific Legal Foundation. The same group persuaded the state board of education to rule last month that school districts may teach all students solely in English.

Also named as a plaintiff in the suit is the anti-bilingual Center for Equal Opportunity, led by Linda Chavez, who served in the Reagan White House.

The suit claims Travell, 5, was placed in Chinese-speaking class at Oakland’s Lincoln Elementary School although he speaks fluent English, with no notification to his father. The case is a tightened-up reprise of a suit Louie filed himself last year, which was thrown out on technical grounds.

Louie’s case plays into a highly politically charged atmosphere surrounding bilingual education. A measure that would effectively end bilingual education in California will appear on the June ballot, and a heavy national debate is also under way.

Louie — an impoverished, disabled minority who sees his son as a victim of bilingual policies — has been an appealing symbol for opponents of bilingual education.

His suit compares Travell’s situation to that of an immigrant in an English-only class, and says the school is discriminating against him “on the basis of race, ethnicity and national origin.”

Oakland school officials acknowledge that Travell was placed in a Cantonese-speaking bilingual class at Lincoln, which is located in Chinatown. Officials say the school has no English-only kindergarten classes because there are not enough English speakers to fill one.

Louie alleges he was not notified of his son’s placement in the class, as is legally required. Lincoln principal Wendy Lee responded that the school typically sends out notification letters 30 days into the school year, and Louie complained before then.

The district offered Travell placement at another school, but Louie, an amputee, says he cannot walk his son that far and cannot afford transportation.

The district claims it also offered Travell a class at Lincoln taught by an English-speaking teacher with a Cantonese-speaking aide. Louie responded that he did not want his son to hear “one word (of Cantonese) … because he doesn’t understand it.”

Joseph Jamarillo, a staff attorney with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said placement of English speakers in bilingual classes could be good for everyone involved, because the English speakers also learn a second language. But he said it was crucial parents approve of such placements.

If the court finds the Oakland district failed to notify Louie, he likely will prevail in the case, Jamarillo said.

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