San Francisco Examiner

Monday, April 13, 1998

Wilson, Eastin Testy on Exam
Governor blasts legal steps; education chief calls him "hysterical.'
By ROBERT SALLADAY, Examiner Capitol Bureau

SACRAMENTO - Gov. Wilson and state schools chief Delaine Eastin - supposedly on the same side in court - are fighting bitterly behind the scenes over San Francisco's refusal to give students an English-only assessment test.

Wilson said Eastin has done little to force The City into giving the controversial test to about 5,700 students with little or no English skills. In a letter, Wilson told Eastin she has "hesitated, procrastinated and balked" at her responsibility to uphold the law.

Wilson also contends that Eastin did nothing when Los Angeles school officials told parents their children didn't have to take the test. Wilson said such notification is a violation of state regulations.

Eastin fired back with a letter saying Wilson was "oddly hysterical and out of step with the facts." Her attorneys, Eastin noted, have sued San Francisco in state court. As for Los Angeles, her attorney said Friday, the district simply was informing parents of the law, not advocating a boycott of the test.

"What more, specifically, do you ask?" Eastin wrote Wilson last Tuesday. "The people of California are safe. I see no threat to public order. The emergency tone of your letter was unwarranted."

The bickering centers on San Francisco's refusal to give non-English speaking students the so-called STAR test. Wilson pushed hard last year for the standardized test, which, by law, must be given to all students in grades 2 through 11 by May 15.

In a separate court action, the San Francisco district has sued Eastin, Wilson and the state Board of Education, charging that the test is a violation of its students' civil rights.

Test measures achievement
Unless a judge stops it, the state will give the English-only test to 1.4 million students who have limited English skills. The test, being administered across the state, is intended to measure achievement in reading, writing, math, history and science.

Eastin said it's a bad idea to give students a test when they can't even read the questions, but she is sworn to uphold the law. Two weeks after the San Francisco school board voted to exempt non-English speaking students, she filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court against the district.

The governor argued that Eastin could have acted more quickly. Her lawsuit was filed three days after she vowed to take action. Next, a scheduled hearing was canceled after San Francisco, in a legal maneuver, successfully sent the case to federal court.

Now Wilson is waiting for Eastin's attorneys to pull the case back to state court. Until that happens, the case has no hearing and the deadline is approaching for the district to give the test to its limited English-speaking students.

"There are many troubling questions about whether the superintendent is meeting her obligation to enforce the law," said Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh. "The legal activities from her office are wanting."

5,700 S.F. students involved
Eastin's response: Calm down. Millions of students will take the test this month, including English-speaking students in San Francisco, and the current legal controversy involves just 5,700 students in The City with limited English-speaking skills.

Eastin's attorney, Michael Hersher, said he would attempt to get the case brought back to state court Monday or Tuesday. "We're confident we can get this matter resolved before it's too late to test the kids," Hersher said.

Hersher said that even if San Francisco misses the May deadline to test the non-English speaking students, it still could give the exam before school ends in mid-June. But he said that would mean those students' scores would not be included in the overall assessment of the San Francisco district.

"We're not treating this like the house is on fire," Hersher said. "I think the governor fails to recognize that we have been attempting to negotiate, cajole and influence the district into complying."

Doug Stone, Eastin's spokesman, said Wilson's office is talking "utter nonsense. . . . This is just another attempt by the governor's office to slam Delaine."

The L.A. situation
One more issue bothers Wilson.

Last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District wrote parents about the test. "If you DO NOT want your child to take (the test), complete the attached form, sign it and return it to your child's school," the letter read.

According to the Wilson administration, state regulations forbid such a notification. The regulations say: "The parent or guardian must initiate the requests . . . and the school district shall not solicit or encourage" any request to boycott the test.

Hersher wrote the district on March 24, telling Los Angeles school officials that their letter and form, which already had been mailed, "is not so clearly in violation of the STAR statutes and regulations that the district should be sued."

Walsh said Hersher's letter "seems to encourage subversion of the regulations."

Although Hersher said the attached form did appear to cross the line into encouraging parents to exempt their students, the district's letter was "just telling them the law."

"Is the fact that they attached the form enough to go to court and get a writ of mandate? Probably not," Hersher said. "The (Wilson administration) wants me to go all over the state suing every administrator. I have only 10 lawyers and half of them are working on the San Francisco case."

The Wilson administration argues that giving the test in English is essential to gauging how well all students understand and learn English. Until the STAR test was approved, California did not have a comprehensive way to measure student achievement in any subject, let alone in English.