San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, July 16, 1998

Prop. 227 Upheld by U.S. Judge
`No constitutional right to bilingual education'
By NANETTE ASIMOV, Chronicle Staff Writer

In a speedy decision intended to resolve how California will teach non-English-speaking children before they go back to school, a federal judge yesterday rejected a move to block voter-approved Proposition 227.

The decision by Judge Charles Legge in San Francisco means that as of August 2, school districts across the state may no longer teach academics in any language but English. Replacing bilingual education will be a required one- year program of intensive English instruction for students who don't speak the language. The new law also lets parents sue teachers who refuse to teach in English, and creates a $50 million annual fund to teach English to adults.

``Since there is no constitutional right to bilingual education, the voters of California were free to reject bilingual education,'' Legge wrote in an order whose 48-page length suggested he had made up his mind before hearing arguments yesterday.

Voters approved the English- only initiative by 61 to 39 percent on June 2.

Despite the overwhelming public support and the judge's ruling, educators in several Bay Area districts said yesterday they will try to find a way around the bilingual ban.

San Francisco vowed openly to defy Proposition 227, and Berkeley said it would file another suit to block the measure. Oakland said it would ask parents to apply en masse for state waivers to escape the English-only requirement. Officials in the San Jose and West Contra Costa school districts said they believed federal desegregation orders will allow them to continue bilingual education.

A number of schools across the state are pursuing another, more drastic avenue: becoming charter schools, which are exempt from the state education code.

Yesterday, Legge rejected two key arguments by immigrant rights attorneys. The first was that Proposition 227 would prevent children from learning math, reading and other subjects because they wouldn't understand their teachers' language. The second was that the new law singles out immigrant children for an inferior education and thus is ``racially motivated.''

Legge said he could find no basis for the claim of discrimination.

The attorneys filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of 1.4 million students -- one-fourth of the children in California schools --who speak little or no English.

Deborah Escobedo, an attorney for Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy Inc., one of the groups that sued, said the plaintiffs will probably appeal but that they need to study Legge's opinion before deciding.

Thomas Saenz, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said he was surprised at the speed of the decision. The judge's lengthy ruling ``does suggest he had a preconceived opinion,'' Saenz said.

The decision was greeted with delight by backers of Proposition 227, including Governor Pete Wilson. He was among the officials who were sued, with the state Board of Education and state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin.

``I am pleased that the court has today upheld the will of an overwhelming majority of Californians who voted to end the state's failed bilingual education program,'' Wilson said.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who wrote Proposition 227, arrived at yesterday's hearing on time -- only to find the courtroom so crowded there was no room for him. Unz milled about in the hallway, fending off stray protesters, until he got in a half hour later.

He said the legal outcome was worth any hassle.

``This is a tremendous victory for the people of California, and most importantly the hundreds of thousands of children who will be taught English from their first day of school,'' he said.

Lawyers for the state included the Pacific Legal Foundation, which takes on conservative causes, and the state attorney general's office.

A central issue in the case was whether the year of English-only instruction required by Proposition 227 would meet a crucial test for equal access under federal law: that academic programs be based on ``sound educational theory.''

Legge was persuaded by the state's argument that Proposition 227 meets that test because language immersion programs are widely used throughout Europe and Israel, a nation of immigrants.

The judge also agreed with the state's contention that the effort to block Proposition 227 was based only on ``speculation'' that children who will be denied bilingual education will be harmed.

Legge all but invited the children's attorneys to return to court after the new programs are in place if they believe that harm has occurred.

Escobedo said that is something the attorneys may well do.

``Proposition 227 has horrible ramifications,'' she said. ``You're going to have children summarily removed from programs that have been designed to meet their needs. There will be mass confusion.''

San Francisco Superintendent Bill Rojas agreed, and said his school district will continue its bilingual education programs.

Unlike San Jose, which has already asked a federal judge to determine if its bilingual programs are legal under its court order to desegregate, Rojas said he is certain that is the case in his city.

``Unz might consider suing us. Or, Mr. Wilson might consider suing us,'' Rojas said. Asked if that would persuade San Francisco to give in, the superintendent answered: ``Nah.''

Unz would not rule out filing suit against San Francisco if it does not comply with Proposition 227.

Oakland schools Superintendent Carole Quan said she hopes a parent waiver provision in Proposition 227 will allow the district to continue teaching in languages other than English.

Quan said Oakland plans an aggressive campaign targeting parents of non-English-speaking children to make them aware they can sign forms seeking an exception to the new law.

``I have already instructed our bilingual department to print up the waiver forms in a variety of languages,'' Quan said.

The wording in Proposition 227, however, makes it difficult for parents to obtain a waiver.