San Jose Mercury News

Wednesday, July 22, 1998

School Districts Sue Over Bilingual Law
They want state board to approve waivers
By MICHAEL BAZELEY, Mercury News Staff Writer

In the latest legal skirmish over the state's new anti-bilingual education law, three East Bay school districts are trying to force the state to exempt them from Proposition 227.

In a complaint filed in Alameda County Superior Court, the Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward unified school districts say the state Board of Education must at least consider the waiver petitions they have filed for relief from the voter-approved initiative.

The complaint, filed Thursday, comes just days after a federal judge upheld Proposition 227, which requires that nearly all public school instruction be in English.

Civil rights groups are considering an appeal of that ruling. In the meantime, several districts are looking for help from the state board, which sets education policy for California, to get around the proposition.

The board, however, voted 6-0 on June 26 not to consider any Proposition 227 waivers. Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward submitted waiver requests to the board in late May, along with several other districts.

The new law takes effect Aug. 2, and most schools are supposed to be in compliance by the start of the school year this fall.

Attorneys for the three school districts note that the state board routinely grants waivers from all sorts of provisions of the state Education Code, such as teacher workload and instructional time. They said the same authority to grant waivers extends to Proposition 227, which is now part of the Education Code.

``There's a presumption in favor of waivers,'' said San Francisco attorney Celia Ruiz of Ruiz and Sperow. ``The state board must grant them.''

But the board rejected that argument last month. ``We are just trying to do the will of the people,'' board member Gerti Thomas said at time, noting that Proposition 227 passed with 61 percent of the vote.

State board attorney Rae Belisle said voter-approved initiatives that become part of the Education Code have a unique legal standing and the board is powerless to overrule them.

``The California Constitution says those initiatives are sacred,'' Belisle said, ``and the only way they can be tinkered with is if there is a vote of the people or if the Legislature tinkers with it.''

Districts around the state have been scrambling to comply with the new law. The state board approved emergency regulations earlier this month intended to give districts guidance.

Several districts have said they hope their parents will qualify for individual waivers allowing their children to be taught in bilingual classes.

Some districts, such as San Francisco Unified, have vowed to defy the new law.

In the latest legal complaint, attorneys said it would be ``difficult, and likely impossible prior to the start of the 1998-99 school year, for these districts to convert to a wholly English-based educational methodology'' in a way that complies with federal law.

A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 27 before Alameda County Superior Court Judge Henry Needham.