San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, June 4, 1998

Prop. 227 Challenged In Lawsuit
Latino, Asian bid to save state's bilingual classes
By NANETTE ASIMOV, Chronicle Staff Writer

Lawyers for Latino and Asian immigrants sued Governor Pete Wilson and state educators yesterday to block Proposition 227, one day after the measure to end bilingual education passed with a hefty 61 percent voter approval.

The class- action suit seeks to invalidate the new law on grounds that replacing bilingual education with 180 days of English lessons restricts immigrant children's access to equal education, guaranteed under federal law.

The federal suit calls Proposition 227 ``a superficially alluring, yet educationally simplistic scheme.''

``The one-year English immersion program will provide little, if any, academic content,'' said Ed Chen, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, one of several civil rights groups who filed the suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Among the groups that sued yesterday were the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy, Inc., California Latino Civil Rights Network, the National Council of La Raza, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles.

The new law ``will treat (immigrant) children like they have a disease,'' said Ted Wang of Chinese for Affirmative Action, which joined in filing the suit. Wang predicted those students will fall behind in school if denied academic help in their own language.

Approximately 1.4 million California students -- about one in four -- speak little English. About 30 percent of these are taught academics in a language other than English, but get language lessons on the side. An additional 20 percent receive translation help from teacher aides.

Those programs are supposed to end under Proposition 227, but several Bay Area districts have already said they will delay implementation of the new law until the measure's legal status is clarified.

Even so, the money used to pay for such programs -- up to $61 million in federal funding -- may no longer be available because the new law prohibits them, said Delia Pompa, bilingual education director for the U.S. Department of Education.

One expected lawsuit, from San Francisco Superintendent Bill Rojas, never materialized. The city schools chief had announced on election night and again yesterday morning that his district would sue immediately to block Proposition 227 if the measure passed. Instead, the school board voted yesterday to support other efforts, such as the class-action suit.

Rojas, meanwhile, dished up some harsh criticism of the new law, and all but said he would leave his post if forced to implement it.

``Let 'em send me to jail,'' he said. ``I can't imagine a job I'd ever hold that would allow me to sacrifice kids that way. This is so offensive and so immoral. I know the guys in the black robes will see that.''

Governor Wilson was in Arizona at the funeral of former Senator Barry Goldwater, and was unavailable to comment. But last month, Wilson announced his support for Proposition 227, and vetoed a bill to reform the bilingual education system.

Each member of the state Board of Education, and state schools chief Delaine Eastin were also named as defendants.

Bill Lucia, the board's spokesman, said the suit is already shaping how its members will redesign the instruction of immigrant children in California.

For example, he pointed to flexible language in the proposition, which says that ``nearly all'' teaching will be in English, and that English classes should last for a period ``not normally'' to exceed one year.

``We're not interested in implementing this in a draconian way that would result in it being enjoined in perpetuity,'' Lucia said, acknowledging that he had spent the entire day with lawyers. ``Obviously, there's wiggle room.''

Eastin favors improving bilingual education rather than ending it, but said through a spokesman that she ``will uphold the will of the voters until the courts tell us to stop.''

Eastin -- who faces a runoff election in November against Proposition 227's co-sponsor, Gloria Matta Tuchman -- has set up a task force to review ``ambiguous provisions'' of the new law that could conflict with federal desegregation laws.

School districts have 60 days to set up the new English classes, and Eastin said she will contact the districts to help them.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who authored Proposition 227, said he is not surprised by the legal challenge.

``But I'd be extremely surprised by an effective legal challenge,'' he quipped. Unz dismissed claims that the measure violates federal law, noting that there is no federal law requiring instruction in a foreign language.

``Our initiative will be implemented throughout California at the beginning of the school year,'' he said. ``I think school districts should follow the will of the people.''

Opponents say a hearing on their lawsuit is expected in early July.