Sacramento Bee

Thursday, June 4, 1998

Foes File Suit To Halt Prop. 227
Unz - Most schools will implement bilingual limits
By JANINE DeFAO, Bee Staff Writer

The day after Proposition 227 won overwhelming support at the ballot box, opponents of the anti-bilingual education measure filed a lawsuit to block its implementation, arguing it runs afoul of federal law.

Initiative author Ron Unz on Wednesday said he expected a legal challenge to the proposition -- which received 60.9 percent of the vote -- but does not believe it will be successful. "The people have spoken," Unz said, and "I predict the overwhelming majority of school districts in California will be implementing our initiative at the beginning of the school year."

But educators from San Francisco to Los Angeles vowed to fight the measure, which would virtually eliminate bilingual classes in favor of one year of English immersion for children not fluent in English.

Wednesday morning, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a class-action suit against Proposition 227 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco and said they would seek a preliminary injunction by the end of the week. Under the initiative, public schools have 60 days to implement the new teaching method.

San Francisco Superintendent of Schools Bill Rojas and his district's school board are backing the lawsuit and said they would exhaust all legal and legislative channels to stop the initiative from taking effect.

"It's an absurd measure which has no educational basis and would set our students back 30 years," said school board President Carlotta del Portillo, who said San Francisco residents voted overwhelmingly against 227.

Initiative opponents have argued that one year is not long enough for students to learn enough English to succeed in school, and that local districts should have the ability to craft programs to meet their differing needs. While the initiative provides for parental waivers to place children in bilingual classes, they are allowed only in limited circumstances.

In Los Angeles Unified schools -- which educate nearly a quarter of the state's 1.38 million limited-English students -- Superintendent Ruben Zacarias told employees "there will be no immediate changes in the way we serve our students," pending the outcome of legal challenges and guidance from the state.

Already, more than a 1,000 L.A. Unified teachers have pledged to disobey the initiative, and the teachers union was deeply divided over the measure.

In Sacramento County, which has the state's fastest-growing population of limited-English students, leaders of the three largest districts all said they would obey the new law. But the impact is not expected to be as great as in other regions, since very few students now are taught in their native languages. Instead, many schools rely on bilingual aides to assist them.

Elk Grove Unified Superintendent Dave Gordon, whose district has no bilingual classes, said he fears the initiative will mean such aides can only work with students for one year. "We have a program that people agree is effective . . . so why would someone want us to change it, and in a way that's completely uniform? It boggles my mind," Gordon said.

Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jim Sweeney said he is taking a wait-and-see approach to implementing the measure.

"I really don't think this thing will be sorted out by the beginning of the school year," Sweeney said. "There's an awful lot of ambiguity in the initiative."

San Juan Unified Superintendent Ray Tolleson echoed the concerns of the many education organizations that opposed Proposition 227. "I'm a believer that one size doesn't fit all . . . (The initiative) is too narrow and does not allow for differences in individual school districts," he said.

The state Board of Education is expected to take its first crack next week at drawing up guidelines for implementing the initiative.

"The board should take an active role to make sure limited-English-proficient kids in California are served, so that this September we don't have chaos and we do have a reasonable interpretation of 227 that works for parents, teachers and children," said Bill Lucia, executive director.

Already, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin and Attorney General Dan Lungren -- both of whom opposed the initiative -- have pledged to uphold and defend the new law.

Eastin said she has created a team to review the initiative and develop preliminary guidelines, which will be sent to local districts in the next few weeks.

"After the dust settles, we'll clearly have to come to terms with the part of (the measure) that's declared constitutional," Eastin said. "We uphold law in California even if we don't like it."

Among those filing the class-action suit Wednesday on behalf of civil rights organizations and parents of limited-English students are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy (META).

"Children are just clearly going to suffer and not be educated," said Peter Roos, co-director of META in San Francisco.

The suit argues that the initiative violates both the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- which prohibits educational discrimination against national origin minorities -- and the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, which requires schools to take "appropriate action to overcome language barriers" so limited-English students have the same access to curriculum as their English-speaking peers.

Foes argue the initiative's one-year English immersion program is an untested educational experiment and that limited-English students will be denied meaningful access to the core curriculum and will fall behind or drop out.

Legal analysts for the Clinton administration, which also opposed the initiative, concluded it does not violate civil rights laws but said districts could run afoul of federal law in implementing it.