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Bilingual Battle Divides Suburban Calif. District

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Language-minority students in a Southern California community have been caught in the middle of a legal tug of war over how they should be taught.

Officials in the 29,000-student Orange Unified School District are pushing ahead with a plan to replace their bilingual education program with an English-immersion approach. Over the summer, the district received permission from the state school board to enact for one year an alternative program for its 7,200 limited-English-proficient students.

But Hispanic parents, civil rights activists, and bilingual education advocates challenged the program in court. They want to retain the bilingual education program. Last month, a state judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the new program.

"We had one foot in one program and one foot in another, unfortunately," said Celia Ruiz, a lawyer for the district.

In turn, district lawyers successfully petitioned to have the case moved to federal court, and on Sept. 10 a U.S. district judge lifted the restraining order.

The debate in Orange Unified mirrors larger controversies at the state and national levels over the best ways to educate students with limited English skills. At issue are competing interpretations of what state and federal rules require schools to provide such students.

Lawyers for Orange Unified say the case is about local discretion and argue that the district's plan operates well within the bounds of state and federal rules.

The state schools chief counters that the district's plan is not up to par in, among other measures, ensuring that LEP students have equal access to the curriculum.

Opponents say the plan defies the wishes of parents, and they note that hundreds of parents signed petitions against the change. And, they argue, the state board overstepped its authority by granting Orange Unified a waiver from providing roughly 1,400 students with instruction in Spanish, their native language.

Civil Rights Concerns

Officials from the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights, meanwhile, have expressed their own concerns over the plan. The district in the past has run afoul of federal rules prohibiting discrimination against LEP students and has a number of outstanding complaints against it.

Although California's bilingual education law was allowed to expire in 1987, its "general purposes" remain in effect. The state education department interprets that to include the old law's requirement that students be taught in their native language "when necessary" to ensure equal opportunity for academic achievement. Lawyers for Orange Unified disagree.

Federal rules do not require that schools provide bilingual education. They do, however, call on schools to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that hinder access to the curriculum.

The courts historically have used a three-part test to define what is appropriate: that schools use sound education theory, provide adequate support, and demonstrate results.

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