Oakland Board Revises ‘Ebonics’ Resolution

By Lynn Schnaiberg — January 22, 1997 3 min read
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Oakland, Calif., school officials took action last week to end the national war of words waged over the district’s resolution on “ebonics” by revising the resolution at the heart of the controversy.

But the ebonics debate in Oakland and beyond is likely to continue, observers said.

After hours of internal wrangling, the district’s seven-member school board voted unanimously to adopt the revised wording at a special board meeting on Jan. 15. Members of a district task force created to recommend ways to improve education for Oakland’s African-American students wrote the original resolution that the board adopted unanimously on Dec. 18. That resolution--which deems many of the district’s African-American students to be speakers of a language distinct from English--sparked a national debate on black English and black student achievement. (“‘Ebonics’ Vote Puts Oakland in Maelstrom,” Jan. 15, 1997.)

A few days after the school board hosted a Jan. 8 public forum on the ebonics issue, task force members met and agreed to amend their original document in the hopes of shifting the focus from the dispute to the classroom. About a quarter of Oakland schools already have a program in place to help develop standard English proficiency for black students.

“The resolution may not have been worded perfectly, but we stand behind our goals and intent,” Sylvester Hodges, the task force chairman, said in a written statement. “We couldn’t risk jeopardizing our children’s future over the resolution’s wording,” said Mr. Hodges, an 11-year school board veteran who recently retired.

Black students constitute a majority in the Oakland schools, unlike enrollment patterns in many other California districts. Fifty-three percent of Oakland’s 52,300 K-12 students are African-American. As a group, their grade-point average is 1.8. Oakland officials and black leaders such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson last week said they want to turn their attention--and the nation’s--to how to ensure more African-American students succeed in the classroom.

“I hope now we can shift from the heat of the resolution to the light of the real needs facing our youth,” Mr. Jackson said last week. The civil rights leader had criticized the original resolution, though he later softened his opposition.

Changes in Wording

The amended resolution still asserts that ebonics--a combination of the words “ebony” and “phonics,” also known as black English and a slew of other terms--is not a dialect of English. But it no longer suggests that ebonics is “genetically based.”

The new resolution says instead that the language patterns many black students bring to school “have origins in” West African and Niger-Congo languages. It no longer calls for students to be taught in their “primary language” of ebonics, and it emphasizes that the district should implement programs that move students from the language patterns they bring to school toward English proficiency.

By March 15, the task force intends to have a plan to expand the district’s English-proficiency program and implement other changes in the district to improve education for African-American students.

Oakland is one of 25 districts statewide to voluntarily use California’s Standard English Program. SEP, which was started in 1981, promotes proficiency in standard English for students who speak black English. Oakland hosted the state’s regular SEP conference last week--an event observers said was almost certain to bring more attention to the ebonics issue.

Los Angeles and Beyond

As expected, Barbara Boud-reaux, the only black member of the Los Angeles school board, introduced a motion last week to expand language programs for African-American students in the nation’s second-largest district. The earliest the board would act on the resolution is the end of the month. Community reaction to the resolution was mixed.

The ebonics debate has sparked action outside California, too. For example, in Massachusetts and Virginia, lawmakers have introduced bills that would prohibit public schools from teaching ebonics.

And U.S. Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., has introduced a largely symbolic bill to bar the use of federal money to support “any program that is based upon the premise that ‘ebonics’ is a legitimate language.” Mr. King is an outspoken advocate of making English the official language of government and abolishing federal bilingual education programs.


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