State Repels Bilingual Waiver Requests

4 Bay Area districts asked exemptions

The state Board of Education rebuffed four Bay Area school districts yesterday after Governor Pete Wilson urged his appointees to fight the districts in court rather than consider their requests to be exempted from Proposition 227, the new anti-bilingual education law.

To do otherwise, Wilson wrote in a letter to board president Yvonne Larsen, “could potentially eviscerate Proposition 227,” the voter- approved law requiring students to be taught in English.

Educators from the Hayward, Fremont, Ravenswood City and Palo Alto school districts had asked the board for waivers from the new law so they could continue teaching in the myriad foreign tongues that are the primary languages for one in five California students.

In making the request, the four districts relied on another state law requiring the board to grant waivers from the Education Code — unless doing so would mean that “the educational needs of the pupils are not being adequately addressed.”

Superintendents and curriculum experts from the Bay Area districts argued at yesterday’s board meeting that their bilingual education programs have served children well, and therefore must be allowed to continue.

The board, recognizing that the waivers could undermine the voter-approved initiative, had refused all summer to hear any district requests for Proposition 227 exemptions. To grant even one might open the door to hundreds of districts that want to keep the bilingual education programs they have relied for years to teach children who speak little English.

But on August 27, Judge Henry Needham of Alameda Superior Court ruled that the state board had to hear the requests.

The board did that yesterday. But rather than grant or deny them, the board members heeded Wilson’s request “to seek and obtain appellate review” as quickly as possible and voted to appeal Needham’s ruling.

Lawyers for the school districts declared that the board members were in contempt of Needham’s ruling, which they said required the board to decide on the waivers, not just listen to testimony.

“We will go back to court immediately,” said attorney Celia Ruiz, who represents the districts that sued the state board on the waiver issue: Hayward, Oakland and Berkeley.

Oakland, Berkeley and three other Bay Area districts postponed their own waiver requests until next month, hoping to fatten them up with fresh data about student progress under the old bilingual programs. The other three are Healdsburg, San Mateo-Foster City and San Jose.

Statewide, five other districts also postponed their waiver requests.

It remains unclear whether the board will hear any additional requests for Proposition 227 waivers until the appeal is complete.

The state cannot appeal Needham’s ruling until it is delivered to the parties in the case. The board’s attorney, Rae Belisle, said members cannot be held in contempt of a ruling they have not seen.

Board president Larsen was absent from yesterday’s meeting, and vice president Robert Trigg declined to elaborate on the panel’s action. “I don’t feel like discussing it,” he said.

The other seven board members who attended called Trigg their spokesman and would not comment.

The school administrators who had traveled from around California to plead their case were more talkative.

“Why should we give up (bilingual) programs that are verifiably good? Giving them up doesn’t make sense,” said Superintendent Marlin Foxworth of Hayward. “Ethics demand that we continue doing what works.”

In a related action, the board voted to withhold federal funds from any district that cannot prove it is in compliance with Proposition 227 and the requirement that the new state achievement test be given to all children only in English.

Berkeley Superintendent Jack McLaughlin, whose district is also fighting the testing issue in court, shook his head. “That’s nasty,” he said.

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