New York Times

Thursday, June 4, 1998

Bilingual Education's Supporters Sue to Block Ban

Minority-rights advocates, stung by the decisive success of a voter initiative in California ending bilingual education there, filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Wednesday to prevent the resolution from taking effect. They asserted that it violated the U.S. Constitution's promise of equal protection as well as federal education and civil rights laws.

Among those who took part in the lawsuit Wednesday was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles. Its executive director, Genethia Hayes, said, "Proposition 227 will prove the most devastating piece of legislation for language-minority students in the history of public education in the state."

"It removes," she said, "all hope of equitable access to employment, college admission, and success, and full participation in a democratic society."

Meanwhile, California's education officials said they were examining budget, material and staffing requirements of Proposition 227, which gives them 60 days to dismantle hundreds of bilingual education programs and replace them with intensive one-year immersion classes for the 1.4 million pupils in the state who have limited proficiency in English.

Since California accounts for nearly half the students in the nation with special English-learning needs, the 61 percent to 39 percent vote for Proposition 227 in California reverberated across the country, where many bilingual programs have been under scrutiny and attack in recent years.

"I think this initiative will represent the beginning of the end of bilingual education around the United States," said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who sponsored Proposition 227, adding that he did not consider the legal challenges to be serious.

A bill limiting federal aid to bilingual education sponsored by Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., was to be considered Thursday by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and seemed likely to pass.

The bill limits the use of federal money in bilingual education programs to three years and removes the requirement that most of the federal financing for such programs be used for native language instruction.

But James Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, a private non-profit group in Washington, predicted that the federal lawsuit would be successful and that bilingual education would continue to thrive in California and across the country.

"I'm positive this is going to stop here," Lyons said. "It is divisive, destructive and, thank God, most people outside California know better."

Federal money for bilingual education amounts to only about $400 million annually, to which states add much more, but passage of such a bill would mark an important political victory for those seeking to limit or end bilingual education.

Nonetheless, many school officials nationwide were defiant. New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew said Wednesday, "This is not in any way, shape or form a policy direction I agree with."

Crew said his staff has spent the past year reviewing bilingual education as part of an effort to raise academic standards in the 1.1 million-student school system, the nation's largest.

About 150,000 New York City students have limited English proficiency. A draft policy seeking to speed their acquisition of English will be presented to the board next fall, but it will not take California's "cold turkey" approach, Crew said.

"It should not be abandoned," Crew said of the program. "It should be strengthened."

At its core, bilingual education teaches children in their native tongue while gradually teaching them English so that after a few years they can join mainstream classes.

Current bilingual education programs date from the late 1960s. While there are scores of immigrant groups in the country, about three-fourths of children with English learning needs are Hispanic.

But critics have complained that such programs segregate children and delay their transition into regular classes by several years.

In California, the problem has been that the large numbers of Mexicans moving into the state have settled in distinct communities which has impeded their assimilation.

Unz said Wednesday that his concern was for the youngsters who were not learning enough English to succeed in American society.

Under Proposition 227, students whose English is limited will enter regular classes after a year of intensive language instruction. But the measure also permits parents to choose bilingual education under exceptional circumstances.

Unz said he expected a few bilingual programs to survive, and said he hoped the better ones would.

The political obstacles the initiative overcame -- opposition by, among others President Clinton, the chairmen of the state Democratic and Republican parties, all four candidates for governor and the editorial pages of the state's largest papers -- was testimony to its popularity among the voters, he added.

Unz also asserted that his side spent only $1.2 million from start to finish, a paltry sum by the standards of other voter initiatives in the state, and much less than the $3.2 million his opponents say they spent.