Contra Costa Times

Thursday, June 4, 1998

Foes Take Prop. 227 to Court
Action 'on behalf of the people who have the most to lose' is announced in the S.F. Federal Building
By ANDREA LAMPROS, Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Like other controversial ballot initiatives in recent California history, the voter-approved measure to end bilingual education in the state's public schools will have its day in court.

In a packed Federal Building press room, civil rights groups announced plans to file a class action lawsuit Wednesday to block the implementation of Proposition 227, which won overwhelming support from voters on Tuesday.

"We are here on behalf of the people who have the most to lose in California," said Deborah Escobedo, attorney with Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy. "The 1.4 million immigrant children in the public schools."

Public interest groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Asian Pacific American Legal Center and META filed a complaint against Prop. 227 in federal district court on Wednesday and said they plan to seek a preliminary injunction against the initiative in the coming days.

"We believe that MALDEF and friends are doing a great disservice to California voters by attempting to deflate the democratic process," said Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the Prop. 227 campaign. "We believe the lawsuit will be in vain."

Gov. Pete Wilson, the state Board of Education and schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin are the defendants named in the complaint.

"As state superintendent, I plan to work with districts to help them comply with the new initiative as effectively as possible," said Eastin, who had opposed Prop. 227.

Most East Bay school districts said they are waiting for instruction from the Education Department.

"No, we are not dismantling bilingual education this morning," said Toni Oklan-Arko, coordinator for bilingual programs at West Contra Costa Unified.

San Francisco Unified announced that it would support the legal action. At a separate press conference, San Francisco teachers pledged noncompliance with the initiative if court challenges fail.

Civil rights groups defended the court challenge, saying that minorities are protected from the "tyranny of the majority" by the U.S. Constitution and civil rights laws. They said court challenges are part of the American system of checks and balances.

"We fear that Proposition 227 will take us back 25 years and re-create the separate and unequal conditions that existed in our school system," said Theodore Wang, a leader of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Ed Chen, an ACLU lawyer, said the legal challenge will be rooted in federal civil rights laws and the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, including:

The 1974 Lau vs. Nichols Supreme Court decision based on Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It ruled that all schools must ensure that students, even those who don't speak English proficiently, can understand their lessons. It did not explicitly mandate bilingual education.

  • The Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 in which Congress turned the Lau decision into federal law. The programs must be based in sound educational theory, demonstrate results and be monitored effectively.
  • The U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause, which provides protection from discrimination on the basis of race, creed, religion and ethnicity. The courts have found that language can be a proxy for race.

Prop. 227 requires that limited English speakers be put in an English immersion program not usually intended to exceed one year. Opponents will argue that the one-year time limit is not based in "sound educational theory" and therefore illegal under federal law.

They may also argue that putting students in a one-year class that focuses mainly on English will deny students access to math, science, reading and other subjects for that year. That may also be a violation of federal law.

"I would expect a battle of the experts," said Rachel Moran, a UC-Berkeley law professor and bilingual education law expert. "Each side will introduce affidavits on research. Then it's up to the court to decide whether or not it's sound theory."

Barring a successful court challenge, school districts would have to implement the law within 60 days.

Times staff writer Jahna Berry contributed to this story.