New York Times

Thursday, July 16, 1998

Judge Refuses to Block Measure Ending Bilingual Education in California

LOS ANGELES -- A federal judge refused Wednesday to block implementation of the statewide ballot measure that ended most bilingual education programs in the California public schools, clearing the way for the new policy to be carried out when classes start in a few weeks.

"Proposition 227 may go into effect, of course subject to review of my decision by a higher court," said Judge Charles Legge of U.S. District Court in San Francisco, referring to the ballot proposal that passed by 61 percent to 39 percent last month. The measure calls for a radical overhaul of how schools teach students with limited English proficiency, essentially ending dual-language instruction in favor of one year of English immersion before students are shifted into regular classes.

A coalition of civil rights and education groups filed suit the day after the June 2 election, seeking to block the measure as discriminatory. In his ruling Wednesday, Legge said he could not discern "any intentional racial or national-origin discrimination against any particular group" in the measure, and declined to grant a preliminary injunction blocking it.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Mark Savage, said they planned an immediate appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in an effort to obtain a decision before the new school year starts, though he acknowledged that he was not sure that would be possible.

"We will try to get up to the 9th Circuit as quickly as possible," Savage said, adding that a subsequent court challenge may have to be filed, based on the measure's actual effect on children once it is in operation.

In recent years, it has become commonplace in California for ballot measures to be tied up in court for months or years after their passage before taking effect. But it now seems all but certain that Proposition 227 will be put into effect in districts around the state even as court challenges continue.

Two weeks ago, the California State Board of Education adopted regulations specifying that the measure should take effect in the coming school year, rebuffing the arguments of some education groups and school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest, that fine print in the measure allowed schools operating year round to wait until next year before switching over.

"Our take on it at this time is that the way is cleared for complete implementation of 227 and all its provisions," said Frank Stephens, a spokesman for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which was chosen to represent the state Board of Education in the lawsuit after the state attorney general, Dan Lungren, recused himself because he had opposed the ballot measure.

Stephens noted that various teacher groups and school districts around the state have vowed to defy the new policy, and he added, "We'll have to wait and see if that happens."

The Los Angeles District -- where nearly half of the 681,000 students are classified as limited English-proficient, and nearly half of those were in bilingual classes last year -- had contended that it would be impossible to implement the needed administrative changes in time for the new school year, and it had pinned its hopes on the Federal court to block the measure.

The sponsor of the ballot measure, Ron Unz, a multimillionaire software entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, said in a telephone interview that Wednesday's decision was "a tremendous victory for the people of California, for the voters who showed overwhelming support for the measure and especially for the hundreds of thousands of immigrant children who will at last be taught English when the school year begins."

The measure allows exceptions to the new policy under limited circumstances when parents request waivers for their children, and if students are not proficient in English after a year of immersion classes, they can enroll for another year. But even if parents obtain a waiver to place their children in alternative programs like bilingual classes, instruction must still be in English for the first 30 days of the school year.