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U.S. Judge Lets Orange Unified Go English-Only

September 11, 1997|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a case testing the legality of alternatives to bilingual education, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that Orange Unified School District may renew a controversial program to teach Spanish-speaking children almost entirely in English instead of their native language.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb of Sacramento lifted a restraining order that a state court had issued against the school district three weeks ago.

In his 17-page decision, Shubb wrote that "the court will not second guess the educational policy choices made by educational authorities," noting that Orange Unified's English-immersion program had been endorsed by the district's Board of Trustees and the State Board of Education. Bilingual education advocates, however, pledged to continue their legal fight.

The case has drawn close attention as 29,000-student Orange Unified--which encompasses Orange, Villa Park and portions of Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana--has fought this summer to become the largest school district in the state in the past two years to drop bilingual education.

At the same time, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron K. Unz has launched a campaign to curtail bilingual education throughout the state via an initiative proposed for the June 1998 ballot.

Elated by Wednesday's ruling, Orange Unified officials said they would immediately purchase English-only textbooks and phase in English-intensive teaching for students who are not fluent in the language. In prior years, about 1,500 elementary students had been enrolled in bilingual classes with instruction in Spanish.

"I look at this as a victory for the community and the schools, but especially for our foreign language students," said Martin Jacobson, president of the Orange Unified Board of Trustees.

The district's English-immersion program, launched Aug. 1 as a one-year trial, had been halted on Aug. 18 by a Sacramento County Superior Court judge after a coalition of Latino rights groups, parents and bilingual educators sued to stop the district. They argued that school officials had not taken the proper steps to safeguard the right of students to have equal access to the curriculum regardless of their language background.

Peter D. Roos, an attorney for the plaintiffs based in San Francisco, said that the coalition would "within a week" renew efforts to block the experiment in the state court system. He warned that it might be "a bit premature" for Orange Unified to celebrate.

"Switching today might mean having to switch back again next week," Roos said. "If you cared about consistency in education, you would not be changing your program until [the legal issues] are resolved in the next several weeks."

Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a Latino rights group that is one of the plaintiffs, said he was saddened by the ruling but vowed to "exhaust all remedies possible" before conceding the case.

The lawsuit was originally filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, in part because state education officials were named as co-defendants. It was moved to federal court at the request of Orange Unified attorneys who contended that federal legal issues were at stake.

Shubb's ruling Wednesday split the lawsuit into two parts. Issues of federal law will stay in his court--where Shubb said the plaintiffs had shown "a low probability of success."

State issues, however, will go back to the state court. Among them is how much authority the State Board of Education has to grant waivers to school districts that would otherwise be required to offer bilingual education. In California, about three of every 10 students who are classified as English learners are taught primarily in their native languages--the vast majority in Spanish. Others are offered a variety of English-development programs. Some get little or no special help at all.

In July, Orange Unified became the fourth school district to win a waiver from bilingual education since the state board adopted a policy in 1995 acknowledging the popularity of alternative teaching methods. The other three are also in Orange County.

Orange Unified administrators insist their plan will pour more resources than ever into the education of English-learning children. For students who need help with the transition, the district plans to use bilingual aides in the classroom. It also will offer English tutoring sessions outside of normal school hours.

State Department of Education analysts have criticized the district for failing to include an effective plan to evaluate the success of the new program.

Hundreds of parents also have protested the plan, saying they prefer to keep bilingual education as an option. Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the district had been "disrespectful" of parental rights.

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