Contra Costa Times

Thursday, July 16, 1998

U.S. Judge Backs Prop. 227
He says initiative to ban bilingual education must be implemented and that possible future harm isn't reason enough to block it.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Most of California's immigrant children are likely to start school next month in English language classrooms.

In a 48-page decision prepared even before he heard Wednesday's oral arguments, U.S. District Court Judge Charles A. Legge denied a temporary injunction that would have allowed school districts to ignore the requirements of Proposition 227. The ballot measure, approved by 61 percent of California's voters last month, effectively closed down the state's multi-year bilingual education programs, replacing them with a one-year program of sheltered English immersion.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs -- several of California's 1.4 million limited-English proficient students -- say they are inclined to appeal the ruling. They were surprised Legge made his decision before listening to oral arguments, which explored some issues not raised in written materials. They also said they may ask the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for an immediate stay of implementation of Prop. 227 to give districts more time to put together effective programs.

Legge said school districts should implement Prop. 227 next month because he did not think the plaintiffs had proved they were likely to win their case. The opponents say Prop. 227 violates federal statutes, including the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, and the U.S. Constitution. Any hardships created by the 60-day time frame for implementation would be temporary and not necessarily irreparable, the judge said.

Legge also said the plaintiffs "have not yet suffered and are not suffering any injury" and that any claims of harm are speculative at this point. If the programs actually implemented under Prop. 227 violate federal law or the Constitution, Legge said, the plaintiffs can continue their legal challenge.

"The fact that Prop. 227 might in the future operate in violation of a federal law or the Constitution under some scenario is insufficient to render it invalid," Legge said.

Furthermore, Legge proposed that the public interest -- the will of the voters -- strongly suggested that the law be enacted if not proven to be in violation of federal law.

"There is a legitimate policy debate among respected educators and scholars on this issue (of bilingual education vs. sheltered immersion)," Legge said. "But that is not a debate for this court to resolve. This court is not a Supreme Board of Education. It is not the province of this court to impose on the people of California its view of which is the better education policy. The voters expressed their policy preference by enacting Prop. 227. The only decision this court can properly make is whether Prop. 227 violates any federal statutes or the U.S. Constitution."

Ron Unz, co-author and prime financial backer of Prop. 227, said school districts should have been working on contingency plans for implementing sheltered immersion programs months ago. Polls consistently predicted that voters would pass Prop. 227, and many legal experts thought a legal challenge would fail.

"I would think voters would feel negatively about those elected school officials who ignored this and thought it would go away," Unz said.

The ruling will push school districts, now in a mid-summer lull, into high gear.

School administrators in the Mt. Diablo district say they plan to be busy through August, scrambling to comply with the law. Officials will analyze the emergency regulations for Prop. 227 recently approved by the state Board of Education, meet with teachers, design waivers for parents and regroup students into the special English immersion classes.

"There's some work to be done, but I don't see that there will be major obstacles to implementing it," said Wayne Miller, bilingual coordinator for the Mt. Diablo district. "The first year will be a bit rocky, but after this initial year, things will fall into place."

Miller said teachers in his district are well-versed in various techniques for teaching students with limited English skills. He doesn't see a need to train bilingual teachers in the new English immersion method.

Herbert Cole, superintendent of the West Contra Costa school district, said his staff will meet with district lawyers and officials from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights before moving ahead with an action plan to comply with Prop. 227. West Contra Costa is one of 55 districts statewide to have a contract with the federal Civil Rights Office and must determine how to satisfy Prop. 227 without violating its federal contract.

Cole said it will be difficult to overhaul bilingual education in the middle of the summer when few teachers and principals are around.

"It's going to be a blurred and muddy start and I think that's going to be statewide," Cole said.

The state Education Board clarified and softened implementation of the initiative when it issued emergency regulations last week.

The board made it clear that parents can seek waivers from their school districts to pull their children out of the one-year English immersion classes and place them in bilingual classes. The board said that school districts should grant waivers unless there is substantial evidence that the program isn't suited for the child.

The board explicitly stated that parents whose children are enrolled in the popular dual-immersion programs -- where half the students are native English speakers and the other half are usually native Spanish speakers -- can use waivers to continue in the programs.

Regardless of the flexible state guidelines, some educators fear the worst.

Maria Quezada, president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, anticipates chaos over the next several months. She says school districts are ill prepared to implement the law and that children will suffer.

"It's going to be difficult for teachers, who have watched students be successful, now see them fail," Quezada said. "They had a key to open up education, and now they've changed the locks."