Manipulative Power-Trippers

MALDEF doesn't represent any real cross section of Latinos -- and it's hurting the Spanish-speaking kids it pretends to help.

I have always dreamed of someone leaking me the ultimate document that would reveal the bad guys and sellouts who hold the reigns of power in Los Angeles, even though there is probably no single document that could do all that.

But I did finally get a real doozy of a document plopped into my lap this month, and it at least reveals the power-trippers who want to keep Latino immigrant children from learning to read and write in English as required under Proposition 227. Certain powerful forces see Prop. 227 as a direct threat to their vision of a separate Spanish world in California — something I view as a very bad way to go for a state where 120 languages are spoken and English is the language of success.

The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund used to be an organization I respected. But that was way back in the 1980s when Mexican immigrants had no voice and no power and MALDEF stepped into the void.

Even then, MALDEF did not represent any real cross section of Latinos, since it is not a membership organization, nor are its leaders elected by Latinos. MALDEF is and always has been a creation of well-meaning white lefties who thought Hispanic minorities would benefit if they were nudged with financial backing to follow the model of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

MALDEF was created, in fact, not by Hispanics but by wealthy East Coast limousine liberals. To this day, it is still underwritten in large part by the wealthiest liberals of all, the stuck-in-the-’70s crowd at the Ford Foundation.

Now, MALDEF is the self-appointed leader of the specious fight to overturn Prop. 227. The organization has managed to deeply embarrass itself in court, where even the most liberal Northern California judges have scolded and rejected its emotional and baseless claims against 227.

I hold in my hand the latest embarrassment from MALDEF. It is a leaked document — written by MALDEF attorney Thomas Saenz and others — which demands that the district sign a costly and draconian “consent decree.” But the district has already painfully learned from the horrific, cost-spiraling Chanda Smith consent decree it signed ? to settle a special education lawsuit ? that consent decrees are for fools. If any decree is signed with MALDEF, even if dramatically watered down , MALDEF will essentially be directing how the district runs its English immersion programs for 320,000 students for 10 years.

You heard me right. MALDEF, which knows diddly and squat about educating schoolchildren, would become partner in directing major curriculum for Latino kids in L.A. public schools for a whole decade.

The proposed consent decree was presented a couple of weeks ago to a very perturbed Los Angeles Unified School Board during an executive session. I am told by sources that when the first few paragraphs of the absurd proposed agreement were skimmed over by Caprice Young — a Yale-educated business whiz elected to the board in June as a reformer — Young “nearly popped a blood vessel.”

According to my source, Young tersely stated: “A consent decree! Consent to what? There will be no consent decree!” Or something pretty close to that. Other board members were equally taken aback that their outside lawyers could bring such nonsense to them.

The district’s outside lawyers , Vilma Martinez and Bradley Phillips, should not have allowed things to reel so far out of control. They were supposed to be holding “settlement talks” to rebuff a MALDEF lawsuit. When MALDEF refused to go away, it should have been told : “Take your best shot in court.” The proposed decree is stamped “Confidential Attorney-Client Privilege,” but I think it is very important that every Angeleno is informed of what this legal bombshell contains.

To say that the proposed consent decree is an insult to Latino children, Latino parents, and all teachers and residents of Los Angeles, is kind.

Among other eye-poppers, the consent decree would require:

1) The current program for limited-English-proficient children (as modified by MALDEF) would have to be followed for a decade. This unchangeable curriculum would include the widely criticized Model B “English immersion” program. The so-called Model B program is not really English immersion, however. In many schools, it is a half-English, half-Spanish program that grossly violates Prop. 227, according to the findings of the Los Angeles County Grand Jury.

Yet major reforms of existing classroom programs such as Model B would not be permitted in the future unless MALDEF agreed to the changes. If MALDEF didn’t like a proposed curriculum reform that would affect English-limited children and that was planned by the school board (such as teaching the children actual English immersion), under this consent decree MALDEF could seek a court order prohibiting the new reform from being approved by the board or used by teachers.

In other words, classroom teaching by special-interest decree.

2) The provision under Prop. 227 allowing parents to get waivers from English immersion in order to keep their children in Spanish all day would be greatly expanded under this consent decree; it would become a huge new bureaucracy, including a toll-free hot line whose employees would be required to answer all parents’ questions within 24 hours. That’s in a district with 710,000 kids and, by my guess, 300,000 parents. Under the decree, this bureaucracy would be required to collate and report all complaints, naming the child’s school and the “type of complaint” raised, for review by other bureaucrats.

Another new bureaucracy would conduct random audits of schools where waivers were denied to parents at unusually high or low rates. A massive mailing system would be created to reinform all immigrant parents every year of their right to waive the law and place their child in Spanish — even parents who had already rejected the waiver program. Moreover, all district guidelines for communicating with parents about the waiver — including the mass mailings — would first have to be reviewed by the new Big Brother, MALDEF.

In other words, millions of dollars would be spent that would never reach the classroom.

As I explained in a recent cover story (“Emperor of Ignorance”), the district is awash in the knee-jerk, control freak mind-set that MALDEF is displaying these days. The district’s Department of Instruction and Curriculum is dominated by Chicanos and Anglos of the badly aging left who want to preserve the ossified Spanish-first “bilingual education” program.

So far, with the new school board focused on other disasters, the Department of Instruction and Curriculum has been winning its anti-227 war. For example, a year ago only 12,000 children had been placed in Spanish classes under parental waivers. But today, new numbers reveal that 24,000 Los Angeles kids have now been herded into Spanish — a jump of 100 percent in just a year, the result of an all-out campaign by bureaucrats, principals, and bilingual-certified teachers who pledged they would sabotage Prop. 227.

The last thing this crowd wants is to train Mexican-American immigrant children how to read and write in English like native-born Americans, as Prop. 227 envisions. To allow that would be to admit that the multi-billion-dollar “bilingual-industrial complex” of publishers, consultants, trainers, and college theorists who urged that immigrant children be placed in Spanish has spawned disaster.

The bilingual industry would finally have to face the fact that it destroyed the opportunities and equal chances of three or four million children who were denied English skills in California classrooms during the past 20 years.

Naturally, MALDEF’s intrusive presence is everywhere in the proposed decree, the outcome of many months of work by MALDEF attorneys. Last year, a federal judge ordered that the school district and MALDEF attempt to iron out their differences in “settlement talks,” after MALDEF lost a courtroom injunction to stop Prop. 227 in Los Angeles schools. As far as I can tell, the school district’s outside counsel then buckled for no apparent reason, even though it is obvious that MALDEF hasn’t a leg to stand on.

Voters overwhelmingly approved Prop. 227 in 1998 because of massive failures in the state’s heavily politicized “bilingual education” programs. But within a few weeks, MALDEF sought a temporary restraining order to stop L.A. from creating any English-immersion classes for Latino immigrant students. MALDEF alleged that the district’s plan to provide English immersion to Spanish-speaking children under Prop. 227 violated the federal Equal Education Opportunities Act.

In fact, the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act requires school districts to “take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by students.” The law is purposefully vague, to give school districts extremely wide latitude in educating non-English speakers.

U.S. District Court Judge Lourdes Baird refused to grant MALDEF an injunction to stop 227 in L.A., noting that the federal act does not require that districts use MALDEF’s tired old bilingual-education approach as the “appropriate action.”

Baird cited case history on the “appropriate action” debate. Court rulings have required only that school districts base their programs for limited-English speakers on educational theory found to be sound by “some experts,” that school districts use practices designed to turn those theories into reality, and that districts determine, after a sufficient time, whether their practices to overcome language barriers are failing or succeeding.

MALDEF lawyers seem to be ignorant of workable classroom methods for teaching reading, writing, and other English skills to immigrants.

In its suit, MALDEF heavily relied upon the whiny declaration of Toni Marsnik, an LAUSD bureaucrat who stupidly opposes teaching English reading and writing skills to Latino immigrants. Citing Marsnik’s insistence that L.A. simply could not comply with the new law, MALDEF argued to Judge Baird that the city’s teachers had not been specifically trained in English immersion, that English-immersion instructional materials had not yet been prepared for students or teachers, and that the system for granting waivers into Spanish was not ready.

Baird wrote a somewhat humorous opinion that basically amounted to: “Well, duh!”

Of course, the district’s teaching techniques, classroom materials, and waiver program had not yet been customized for English immersion. Prop. 227 was a new law that every district in California was struggling to follow. Not one district was ready, but especially not Los Angeles, a big and incompetent district.

More important, Baird noted, English immersion was not some mysterious approach that befuddled educational theorists. Referring to a claim made by Marsnik and pounced upon by MALDEF, Baird wrote: “Simply describing structured English immersion as ‘a new and untested concept’ does not make it so.”

After that ruling, a federal judge ordered the two sides into settlement talks to see if a trial could be avoided. And that is when the district’s highly paid outside lawyers, Vilma Martinez and Bradley Phillips of Munger, Tolles & Olson, apparently lost sight of exactly who their client is.

Hint to Martinez and Phillips: It’s not MALDEF.

Martinez and Phillips worked with openly anti-227 bureaucrats in the district, including Marsnik, Forrest Ross and Carmen Schroeder, and this scheming crowd is attempting an end-run around Prop. 227 by fueling a plan to buckle to MALDEF rather than fight in court.

I called a few lawyers around town. I was curious why outside legal counsels Martinez and Phillips — who are paid a fortune to defend the district from idiotic lawsuits and costly legal traps — would cry uncle to a bunch of lawyers from MALDEF who do not have a case, as Judge Baird made painfully clear.

Said one attorney who read over the consent decree: “Why would the district enter into something that binds them for 10 years after winning a favorable temporary restraining order, when it looks like all they have to do is bang through a trial and win?”

Said another: “Maybe the lawyers from Munger, Tolles & Olson think they work for the district’s bureaucrats and not the school board. It wouldn’t be the first time a legal agreement got worked out with the executives of a company long before it was brought before the board of directors. The big difference is that the executives would be fighting for the good of the company. I don’t know if you can say that about the bureaucrats who run LAUSD.”

Exactly right. The just-retired Forrest Ross, his boss Carmen Schroeder, and their minions Toni Marsnik and Geri Herrera, have done everything in their power to stop Prop. 227 from being implemented in L.A. in order to preserve their own powerful pre-227 fiefdom.

Like MALDEF, they cling to the old lefty vision of empowering young immigrant students in the Spanish language of their parents — not in the English of their adopted country.

The second lawyer to whom I spoke pointed out that the consent decree appears to be “a not-very-well-disguised full-employment program for MALDEF’s attorneys,” who practically would be given their own wing inside LAUSD if the consent decree were approved.

I am betting MALDEF will not win any consent decree, in any form, even though district outside counsels Martinez and Phillips have, outrageously, written a watered-down “compromise” version. The reform-minded school board is far too smart to fall for legal tricks, as did the idiotic old board. Moreover, faint-hearted General Counsel Rich Mason, who folded on the Chanda Smith suit, has been forced out. His successor , Richard Sheehan, actually seems to respect state law, unlike the useless Martinez and Phillips.

According to one of my district sources, MALDEF is desperately trying to head off the possibility of a trial because its lawyers probably realize no judge would side with their view of Prop. 227 or the Equal Educational Opportunities Act. According to my source, MALDEF and Vilma Martinez have been warning school district leaders that the district might be sued by the pro-English-immersion Pacific Legal Foundation for failing to teach English immersion, so they better cut a deal with MALDEF.

As Martinez’s reasoning apparently goes, if the school district already has agreed to a draconian federal consent decree that gives MALDEF all the keys to the schoolhouse, any lawsuit by Pacific Legal Foundation in a state court would be moot.

Um, isn’t that like confessing to a felony to avoid a misdemeanor?

In fact, the PLF tells me, it is not preparing a lawsuit against L.A. even though it would love to prevent bureaucrats like Ross, Marsnik, and Schroeder from warehousing kids in Spanish under the guise of Model B English immersion. Moreover, at least if the Pacific Legal Foundation did sue, it would be motivated by a desire to make the district follow a law that’s working for Latino kids all over California and was heavily backed by voters.

What a far cry from the motives of MALDEF, a once-respectable group that has devolved into just another name on the list of manipulative power-trippers who want to control L.A.

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