Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, August 19, 1997

Judge Halts Orange Schools' English-Immersion Program

A  Sacramento County judge called a halt Monday to the Orange Unified School District's new English-immersion program for students who speak other languages, reversing a key victory school administrators had won last month in their campaign to drop bilingual education.
     The temporary restraining order granted by Judge Ronald B. Robie of Sacramento County Superior Court was a significant legal victory for California's bilingual proponents at a time when bilingual education has come under increasing political attack.
     This summer, state lawmakers have been debating legislation that could dilute state bilingual education requirements. In addition, an anti-bilingual education group is gathering signatures for a proposed ballot measure that would require teaching students in English first.
     Robie's decision sets the stage for a court battle over exactly what services school districts must offer children who are not fluent in English, if they choose not to teach them in their native language.
     Latino rights advocates and bilingual proponents from throughout the state who had joined the lawsuit said they relish the prospect of a legal fight.
     "How wonderful!" said Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a Latino rights group that is one of the plaintiffs in the case. "Of course we are highly elated. We also must be sober enough to tell you that a lot of things hang in the balance. A lot of material needs to be provided to convince the court."
     In his three-page decision, Robie said he was not satisfied that Orange educators had taken enough steps to safeguard the rights of non-English-speaking children--echoing several points made in a critical Department of Education report earlier this summer. Still, the judge said federal law does not require native-language teaching.
     The suit was filed in Sacramento County Superior Court because the State Board of Education allowed the waiver to take effect.
     The judge's order left the school district in a jam. About a quarter of Orange Unified's 29,000 students are not fluent in English; of those, about 1,500 in primary grades had been taught in a traditional bilingual program until the district formally switched to English-based teaching on Aug. 1.
     The district serves the cities of Orange and Villa Park, and portions of Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana.
     But a top district official said Orange may have trouble backpedaling: 28 of its 45 certified bilingual teachers left the district in the wake of the school board's unanimous decision in May to move to English immersion.
     The board's decision had been reinforced in July when the State Board of Education declined to approve or deny the district's request for an alternative teaching program--effectively granting Orange a year to go ahead as it wished. Orange Unified had become the fourth Orange County school district, and the largest in the state, to win a waiver from state bilingual education rules in the past two years.
     Robie's ruling put at least a temporary stop to the district's plans.
     "It's a big surprise," said Neil McKinnon, an assistant superintendent. "I'm really amazed. The courts are taking over what the state board did."
     McKinnon said he would follow the law but warned that it could be difficult to return to the status quo.
     "To say we have to go back just is not going to be possible," he said. "We can go back in those few classrooms where we still have bilingual teachers."
     At Fairhaven Elementary School in Santa Ana--where four of five students are Latino, and most of those speak little English--Principal Phil Morse said he would scramble to do what he could. He now has only three bilingual teachers, down from 11 in the previous school year.
     "We're going to need some time to catch our breath and strategize," said Morse, adding that he will have to come up with something before Wednesday's staff meeting.
     Attorneys for Orange Unified did not return phone calls for comment Monday afternoon.
     State schools chief Delaine Eastin and the State Board of Education were also named as defendants in the suit. Neither Eastin nor the board has taken a position on the lawsuit, said Joseph R. Symkowick, general counsel for the state Department of Education. He had no comment Monday on the judge's ruling.
     The state board had already scheduled a meeting for Wednesday to discuss the case.