English-Language Learners

Ruling Supports Limited Use of Bilingual Method

By Deborah L. Cohen — February 22, 1989 5 min read

A federal court ruled last week that the Berkeley, Calif., school district offers a “sound educational program” for limited-English-proficient pupils even though it does not rely heavily on native-language instruction by certified bilingual teachers.

Those supporting the district said last week that the ruling in Theresa P. v. Berkeley Unified School District marks the first time a court has expressly stated that methods stressing the use of English can be as effective in teaching l.e.p. pupils as native-language instruction.

“After reviewing the evidence presented in this case, this Court concludes that the plaintiffs have not met their burden to show that the [Berkeley school district’s] program is not pedagogically sound,” U.S. District Judge D. Lowell Jensen of San Francisco said in the Feb. 14 ruling.

“In fact,” the judge said, “the evidence shows that the educational theories upon which [the] programs are grounded are manifestly as sound as any theory identified by plaintiffs.”

The case sets an important precedent nationally because “all of the cases to date have been predicated on the assumption that bilingual education is the most effective approach,” said Celia M. Ruiz, a lawyer representing the school district.

The ruling defies the convention that “you only offer another method when you can’t offer bilingual education,” Ms. Ruiz said.

But Peter Roos, a lawyer for the advocacy group that filed the 1987 suit on behalf of 16 l.e.p. students, said last week that casting the ruling as a referendum on “bilingual education versus another method” would be a “misstatement” of the case.

Mr. Roos, who indicated that the plaintiffs may appeal the ruling, maintained that they had not set out to prove the efficacy of bilingual education, but to “challenge to the adequacy of the district’s alternative programs.”

Credentials at Issue

About 571 students--or seven percent of the Berkeley district’s total student body--are limited-English speakers. They represent 38 different language groups and are enrolled in 16 different schools.

The district’s “language-remediation program” includes a native-language program for Spanish speaking elementary-school students and a cultural and language program with a native-language component for Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking students in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

But the majority of students are taught in integrated classrooms by teachers trained in English-as-a-second-language and “sheltered English” approaches. Tutors with some bilingual skills are provided for l.e.p. students who need additional support.

Ms. Ruiz said the district, which she termed “at the forefront of bilingual education” since 1962, has placed more emphasis on English instruction in recent years because “children don’t come out of these programs as competent in English and academic areas.”

The Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy Project charged in Theresa P. that the district’s efforts were inadequate to overcome the language barriers facing l.e.p. pupils and that they violated federal laws.

But Mr. Jensen said plaintiffs failed to establish a violation of either the Equal Educational Opportunities Act or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in federally funded programs.

The judge also disputed what he said was a “major assumption” by the plaintiffs--that “it is necessary to hold language-specific credentials” to offer adequate services to l.e.p. pupils.

Experts testifying for the plaintiffs had argued that the district should hire teachers and tutors with bilingual credentials or advanced degrees.

“The record does not support this assumption but rather tends to show an alternative assumption,” Judge Jensen said, “that good teachers are good teachers no matter what the educational challenge may be.”

“We were able to present evidence that showed there was no difference in the achievement of students in classrooms with teachers that held the credential and didn’t hold the credential,” Ms. Ruiz said.

The judge also noted that prospective teachers and tutors are required to enroll in training sessions and to demonstrate “substantial progress” toward completing their credentials.

In light of Berkeley’s limited financial resources, he added, “it is highly unlikely that [the district] could fill all necessary positions with fully credentialed teachers” or teach students in all the languages represented.

“Any review of the actual complement of teachers and the support provided them must be done in light of the resources actually available,’' he said, concluding that the district committed “significant” funds to language remediation despite a brush with near bankruptcy in 1986.

Judge Jensen also rejected the plaintiffs’ charge that the district used inadequate procedures to identify l.e.p. students and to ensure their readiness to exit bilingual classrooms.

Thomas C. Olson, public-affairs di8rector of U.S. English, said last week that the ruling could set the tone for court battles in other states that, like California, have passed amendments to their consititutions declaring English the official language.

Influential Victory?

He called the ruling “a significant and important victory for the whole area of reforming bilingual education,” which has been a chief target of the official-English movement.

Evidence “subtantiated by the court” in the case, Mr. Olson asserted, “is part of a growing realization that native-language instruction is not really what it is promoted to be: the end-all of all approaches to teaching l.e.p. children.”

Ms. Ruiz added that the ruling could affect school districts throughout California, which has been operating without a bilingual-education statute since Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a bill to extend a law that was allowed to “sunset” in 1987.

The state education department has maintained, however, that districts still have an obligation to fulfill the “intended purposes” of both federal law and the state program, whose funding and eligibility criteria remain intact.

But the department’s position that districts are still obligated to provide native-language instruction when needed is a “subject of controversy” that could be challenged in the wake of the recent ruling, Ms. Ruiz said.

Joseph R. Sympkowick, the department’s chief counsel, said the ruling would have no effect on “our interpretation of state law.”

He added that neither the new ruling nor recent U.S. Supreme Court precedents preclude states from regulating districts beyond the “minimum requirements of federal law.”

While federal civil-rights laws never mandated “a per se right to bilingual education,” Mr. Roos said, “it is still good conservative advice to school districts throughout the country” that they have an obligation to provide appropriate programs for l.e.p. students.

“To the extent they can do so,” he said, “a bilingual program provides the greatest legal shield for them.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1989 edition of Education Week as Ruling Supports Limited Use of Bilingual Method


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