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O.C.R. Threatens Oakland With Cutoff in Federal Funding

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The U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights has threatened to cut off federal funds to the Oakland, Calif., public schools if the district does not come up with a plan to adequately serve limited-English-proficient students.

In a recent letter to Superintendent Richard P. Mesa, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Norma V. Cantu cited the district's "well-documented, 17-year record of failure to fulfill its obligation to language-minority students.''

Many L.E.P. students are said to receive English instruction from unqualified teachers or not to receive it at all. Teachers and parents have also charged that the district retaliated against them for advocating a strong bilingual program.

Rules under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin--require schools to provide L.E.P. students with services needed to enable them to participate in school.

The charges are not new. The district has been embroiled since 1984 in a class action, Zambrano v. Oakland Unified School District, filed against it in state court by nine families of L.E.P. students. District officials signed a consent decree in 1985, but auditors have found persistent violations of the settlement.

State education officials decided in July to freeze some of the district's state funding due to its violations of state and federal bilingual-education rules. (See Education Week, Oct. 20, 1993.)

Three Sets of Rules

Mr. Mesa complained of trying to comply with three sets of rules.

"What we have needed is a clear direction, from a single source, as to how to meet our obligations to L.E.P. students,'' Mr. Mesa said.

John E. Palomino, the director of the O.C.R's regional office in San Francisco, said state and federal officials will work with the court monitor for the Zambrano plaintiffs to negotiate a plan.

If the district cannot reach an agreement with the O.C.R., the agency could move to block all its federal aid, about $18 million a year, or refer the case to the Justice Department for prosecution.

Norman C. Gold, the director of bilingual-education compliance for the state, said the action represents a change in attitude at the O.C.R., which was often criticized for lax enforcement in the past decade.

"That kind of [strong] language would've never gotten into a federal letter before,'' he said.

The last time the O.C.R. moved to cut off a district's funds was in 1990, when officials in DeKalb County, Ga., refused to settle a case because they wanted a court ruling on a special-education issue. It was the first such action by the O.C.R. since 1982.

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