Albuquerque Journal

Wednesday, May 19, 1999

Bilingual Education Has Partial Victory
Ruling Dismisses APS Bias Claims
By SCOTT SANDLIN and MATTHEW FRANCK, Journal Staff Writers

A federal judge, ruling on major issues in a lawsuit brought against Albuquerque Public Schools, said New Mexico's bilingual education law is workable under the state and federal constitutions.

But U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez also said APS has not yet shown that its programs are effective.

The lawsuit has the potential of derailing or modifying bilingual programs statewide.

In a detailed, 45-page analysis, Vazquez rejected the contention that the New Mexico Bilingual Multicultural Education Act improperly discriminates against students based on their national origin by placing them in language assistance classes.

"Indeed, on its face this statute does not divide the students but unites them: it specifically provides that bilingual educational programs in the state must accommodate everyone," Vazquez wrote.

The opinion and order, filed Friday in Santa Fe, does not kill the lawsuit. Rather it states that key portions of the suit are not worthy of a trial.

Vazquez ruled there are grounds to hold trial on two points, including allegations by three students that they were retaliated against for their participation in the lawsuit, and a claim under the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, which demands that school districts take "appropriate action to overcome language barriers."

Vazquez ruled that APS has thus far failed to demonstrate that its bilingual programs are based on sound educational theory and have helped students overcome language barriers, as the act requires.

Jorge Amselle of the Center for Equal Opportunity said that portion of the ruling is a victory for bilingual critics, who have long claimed that APS' programs are ineffective.

In March 1998, 14 APS students and their parents sued the district demanding an end to bilingual education programs, which seek to teach non-English-speaking students in their native language while they learn English.

The lawsuit claimed that the programs failed to teach English effectively, and as a result discriminated against the students based on national origin. The suit also challenged the constitutionality of the programs as they are administered at APS.

The court upheld the constitutionality of APS bilingual programs and dismissed claims that the district is discriminating against students based on national origin.

Bilingual education supporters predicted Tuesday that the ruling ultimately will spell the end of the 15-month-old lawsuit.

"Most of the issues brought by the plaintiffs will just go by the wayside, because I don't think there is much validity to them," said Juan Jose Pena of the American G.I. Forum of New Mexico, one of several groups attempting to help APS protect bilingual services.

Amselle said the ruling is a blow to bilingual education critics. He also said that much of the case against APS remains intact.

"There is still sufficient evidence to warrant a trial against APS," Amselle said.

Amselle said a trial date has been set for June 7 on the remaining elements of the lawsuit. But he said plaintiffs still could decide to appeal Vazquez's rulings or to seek a settlement with APS.

Vivian Doak, one of the parents suing APS, said she's prepared to fight.

"We knew this would be a long road to justice and we are sticking to it," she said. "We definitely don't think our issues were heard."

The Center for Equal Opportunity is headed by Linda Chavez, who has worked to eliminate bilingual programs nationally.

Vazquez allowed several groups that support bilingual education including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the League of United Latin American Citizens to join the lawsuit as third parties.

The groups argue that while APS needs to improve bilingual services, the programs are legal and should be maintained and enhanced.

Pena said he believes members of the American G.I. Forum and other groups will now likely resolve their differences with APS out of court.

"I think most issues will be settled amicably," he said.