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11th-Hour Lawsuit Filed Against Prop. 227

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attorneys representing children with limited English abilities filed a last-ditch lawsuit Thursday in federal court seeking to halt Los Angeles schools from putting the anti-bilingual education Proposition 227 into effect next week.

The suit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund contends that the Los Angeles Unified School District is not prepared--by its own admission--to teach children through the method known as English immersion.

The lawsuit puts the district in the awkward position of defending its plan to push ahead with Proposition 227, only weeks after it had fought in court to delay or halt the initiative.

The district plans to argue in a hearing scheduled this afternoon in Los Angeles before U.S. District Judge Lourdes Gillespie Baird that its schools have worked hard to get ready for a legally required transition Monday, when 47 year-round schools begin a new term.

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Los Angeles school board President Victoria Castro, an outspoken opponent of Proposition 227 before the June 2 election, acknowledged that she had “mixed emotions” about the lawsuit.

But Castro said she supports the district’s legal position, citing the need to give clear direction to principals and teachers in the schools set to implement the initiative Monday and scores of other campuses in the ensuing weeks. All summer educators have been scrambling to respond to a law that critics say is vaguely worded and filled with contradictions.

“This is nightmarish for a principal, regardless of how you feel about 227,” Castro said.

MALDEF attorney Thomas A. Saenz contended that the district’s plan will produce an instant upheaval in classrooms in violation of the 1974 federal Equal Educational Opportunity Act.

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“They have not trained teachers, not acquired materials, not even fully developed this new curriculum--and yet they are implementing,” Saenz said. “It’s going to be a situation where teachers have to make it up as they go, and ‘make it up as you go’ is not a way to teach kids.”

Other districts around the state are wrestling with difficult choices forced upon them by an initiative that was widely opposed by educators but overwhelmingly approved by voters.

In Orange County, Saddleback Valley Unified and Capistrano Unified school districts have applied for special dispensation to preserve certain bilingual programs targeted at children who speak Spanish or English. The programs, popular with parents, are known as “dual immersion” or “two-way” bilingual education.

Doug Stone, a spokesman for Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, said the state schools chief will consider whether to grant the two districts a waiver to the initiative under a section of education law that grants flexibility for alternative schools or programs. But he said, in general, that Eastin would frown on attempts to “dodge around the new law.”

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Unless the courts intervene, most California schools will be required to implement the initiative for all semesters that begin Monday or later.

The new legal skirmish in Los Angeles came as the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was considering an appeal by civil rights groups--including MALDEF--in a separate lawsuit seeking to block Proposition 227 from taking effect statewide.

In that case, U.S. District Judge Charles A. Legge ruled July 15 that the initiative could go forward on the grounds that no one had proved that any children would be hurt by teaching them mostly in English.

Among the many documents Legge reviewed was a “friend of the court” brief from Los Angeles Unified, in which the district argued that the initiative’s mandate for a rapid, radical change in teaching method would cause “significant harm” to limited-English students.

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More than 312,000 of the district’s 681,000 students are not fluent in English. That’s nearly a quarter of the 1.4 million limited-English students statewide. Most such students in Los Angeles speak Spanish, and many of them have been in bilingual classrooms with large doses of their native language.

The district told Legge in its brief that “implementation of the initiative for the upcoming school term will likely result in an inadequate program of instruction and serious adverse effects on the students’ learning. . . . The resulting harm to the children’s education will be difficult to overcome even if the new programs are refined during the course of the year.”

But in court papers submitted Thursday to oppose the new lawsuit, the district changed its stance.

Educators “have worked feverishly to finalize and prepare for implementation of [the district’s] educational plan pursuant to Proposition 227,” lawyers for the district wrote. If blocked from implementation, they continued, the district “would be forced, over a weekend, to reverse the gears that are now in motion at the hundreds of schools within the district.”

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Supporters of Proposition 227 were highly skeptical of the district’s change of policy and were investigating whether their own attorneys could submit arguments to the court.

Alice Callaghan, a downtown Los Angeles activist, said district officials “would love MALDEF to win that lawsuit. One has to simply presume they’re not going to fight it.”

But Richard K. Mason, general counsel for Los Angeles Unified, said the district will vigorously defend its implementation plan, which allows teachers or teacher aides to give students help in their native language if requested by parents.

Mason conceded that the plan has “some bugs to work out.” But he added: “We think we’ve got a pretty good program, solidly based on parental choice. We are prepared to go forward.”

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