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Judge OKs District's Attempt to Curb Bilingual Education

Teaching: Orange Unified officials are elated as restraining order on English-immersion plan is lifted. Foes vow to continue battle.

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 the Orange Unified School District may renew a controversial program to teach Spanish-speaking children almost entirely in English.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb of Sacramento lifted a restraining order that a state court 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.

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

At the same time, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron K. Unz has launched a campaign to curtail bilingual education throughout the state through 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 primarily 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, was halted Aug. 18 by a Sacramento County Superior Court judge after a coalition of parents, Latino advocates and bilingual educators sued to stop it. 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, a San Francisco-based attorney for those plaintiffs, said Wednesday that he will continue legal efforts to block the experiment, though he would not say whether the federal court ruling itself will be appealed. He said the coalition first will try "within a week" to renew its arguments in the state court system and 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, partly 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 split the lawsuit into two parts. Issues of federal law will stay in his court--where he 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 language--the vast majority in Spanish. Others are offered a variety of English-development programs. Some get little or no special help at all.

Orange Unified administrators insist that 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 plans to offer English tutoring sessions outside normal school hours.

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