Contra Costa Times

Friday, December 18, 1998

San Jose Schools Ruled Exempt from Prop. 227
The district can teach in Spanish because it must offer native-language instruction under a federal court order
By ANNE MARTINEZ, Mercury News Staff Writer

San Jose Unified School District on Wednesday became the first in the state to win federal court approval to continue to teach Spanish-speaking students in their native language, despite the passage of a measure that bans most bilingual education programs in California.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Ronald M. Whyte means the district's nationally recognized Spanish dual immersion program at River Glen School will continue, as will bilingual programs for Spanish-speaking students at 16 elementary schools throughout the district.

Whyte's decision is expected to have little impact on other bilingual programs through the state, because San Jose Unified is under a federal court order requiring it to desegregate its schools and offer native language instruction to Spanish-speaking students.

Since voters approved Proposition 227 in June, about 50 school districts throughout California have asked to opt out of the new state law, which requires public school instruction to take place overwhelmingly in English.

Three Alameda County districts -- Berkeley, Oakland and Hayward -- filed lawsuits earlier this year asking the state board of education to consider their waiver requests.

"It doesn't affect the other districts because they don't have a court order that calls for bilingual education," said Mike Hersher, general counsel for the California Department of Education.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who spearheaded the Prop. 227 effort, agreed the ruling does not set a precedent, but still expressed disappointment at the decision.

"(The judge) made the decision based on the assumption that the program was working well, and it's not," Unz said.

San Jose Unified has continued its bilingual programs for Spanish-speaking students while district officials and plaintiffs in the desegregation lawsuit sorted out details of how to comply with both mandates.

"We worked very hard to get to the point to minimize conflict with state law and our court order," Superintendent Linda Murray said.

Under the agreement, the ultimate decision of whether a student is placed in a bilingual program rests with parents and not the school's administration. Parents who visit their school and attend informational meetings will have to sign waivers annually if they want their child to be in a bilingual program.

In addition, students will not be required to spend their first 30 days in an English-immersion program, as called for under Prop. 227.

"All we wanted was for our parents to be as informed as possible and have the ability to make a choice," said Francisco Garcia-Rodriguez, the plaintiffs' lawyer.

Whyte's ruling was bittersweet for some parents who opposed the district's plan to limit native-language instruction in fourth and fifth grades. Students will learn predominantly in their native language through third grade and mostly in English in fourth and fifth grades.

"What happens to the students who come in at fourth or fifth grade and can't receive instruction in their native language?" said Arcelia Patron, whose three children went through the bilingual program.

District officials said schools will provide tutoring and instructional aides on a support basis for those students.

Some parents also expressed concern about the district's plan to move the dual Spanish-immersion program from River Glen to the nearby Broadway Continuation High School in upcoming years. That move is part of the district's plan to build two new schools at the present Horace Mann and River Glen campuses instead of building a new downtown school as was originally planned.

Parents said the Broadway site is significantly smaller and more prone to traffic congestion.

"Displacing children at River Glen is not the solution," said Fred Valles, who has two children enrolled in the program.