Funds Could Leave No Bilingual Child Behind
Los Angeles Times
March 29, 2004
Fred Alvarez

Once excluded from federal dollars, districts with limited-English learners are applying for money to improve literacy for students in grades K-3.

The way Denis O'Leary saw it, California's Reading First program was leaving too many children behind mostly poor and immigrant students, those who would benefit most from the federally funded literacy campaign.

So the Oxnard-area teacher and school board trustee lent his name last year to a lawsuit that has helped reshape the reading program, ensuring that children in some of the state's poorest districts have access to millions of dollars once largely cut off from bilingual classrooms.

As a result of a settlement in the lawsuit and a new state law, bilingual classrooms in California now have priority to tap $13.6 million in Reading First funds, money that will be used to boost reading achievement for limited English speakers from Sacramento to San Ysidro.

Just last week in the Oxnard School District, where O'Leary sits on the school board, trustees unanimously voted to apply for at least $1.6 million a year in Reading First money, more than half of which would be earmarked for students in bilingual settings.

"That's money that would not have been available to them before," said O'Leary, a bilingual teacher in a neighboring district. "Finally, we are able to offer equal access to education to all children in the state."

Oxnard is not alone. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, officials have applied for $2.2 million a year to bring the Spanish-language version of Reading First to thousands of bilingual students. And in San Diego County, officials in the San Ysidro School District have asked to add 34 bilingual classrooms to the district's annual Reading First grant.

A chief component of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, Reading First was launched in 2002 with a nationwide goal of pushing every child to reading proficiency by the end of the third grade.

The program showers nearly $1 billion a year on schools across the country to run programs that use proven curricula and teaching methods to support and improve reading instruction in grades K-3. The money is used to pay for materials, professional development, literacy coaches and student assessments.

In California, where the first two years of funding totaled about $280 million, state education officials earmarked the money for high-poverty schools with low reading performance.

But they mandated that funding go only to classrooms using state-adopted English-language materials. That move, advocates said, effectively excluded bilingual programs, where teachers do initial reading instruction in Spanish.

The decision prompted the lawsuit aimed at forcing a funding change. And it spurred legislation, signed into law in October, prohibiting the exclusion of those programs from the Reading First campaign.

The law written by Assembly members Marco Firebaugh, Jackie Goldberg and Leland Yee required the California Department of Education to amend its Reading First plan to allow bilingual classrooms to use Spanish-language translations of approved materials.

"The entire education community was opposed to this policy," said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of Californians Together, the statewide coalition that spearheaded the suit. "After two years of exclusion, the children who need help learning to read the most are finally going to get the help they deserve."

Karen Steentofte, chief counsel for the state Board of Education, said there was no intent to exclude bilingual classrooms from the federal program.

Rather, she said, officials had set out to ensure that participating school districts complied with California's federally approved Reading First plan, which called for the use of state-adopted instruction materials. Those materials had been available only in English when the state crafted its Reading First plan, Steentofte said.

"There was never an outright prohibition against bilingual classrooms," Steentofte said. "Any classroom [where teachers] used the materials in English for 2 1/2 hours a day could be funded, and some bilingual programs did that."

But bilingual education advocates said most programs did not.

Nearly 1,500 schools across the state operate bilingual classrooms despite passage in 1998 of a voter initiative that mandated English instruction and sharply limited bilingual programs.

The initiative, Proposition 227, allows students to learn in their native languages only when their parents ask for waivers from the law.

Last year, nearly 150,000 waivers were granted in California, which means thousands of classrooms continue to offer bilingual instruction. Advocates said teachers in many school districts refused to alter their bilingual curriculum just to qualify for Reading First grants.

Mary Hernandez, an education rights attorney who helped bring the lawsuit, said she believed education officials had been pressing a political agenda when they restricted the funding.

"To me, it was very obvious that they thought this would be a good occasion to try to press their political preference for English-only classrooms," Hernandez said.

Steentofte said such allegations were baseless.

Conservative activist Steve Frank, who helped lead the statewide charge for Proposition 227, said he had no problem with the federal money going to bilingual programs even if he disagreed that those programs were effective.

"Proposition 227 did allow for some forms of bilingual education by choice of the parent," Frank said. "That is the law, and as long as the law exists you need to fund those portions of education mandated by" the proposition.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, officials wasted no time applying for funding for 300 bilingual classrooms now eligible for Reading First grants.

The district received initial Reading First funding last year of $45 million for 189 schools, said Jim Morris, the district's assistant superintendent for elementary instruction. Most bilingual classrooms were not eligible for that money. Morris said the district has applied for an additional $2.2 million, which it expects to receive by June 30.

"We're very excited, not because it's going to allow us to do something different, but because it's going to allow us to deepen the work we've already started," said Morris, noting that the district funded its own professional development program for bilingual teachers in lieu of the Reading First grant.

In the Pomona Unified School District, officials this school year started receiving an annual Reading First grant of about $2 million to launch the program in 14 schools. But the district didn't start spending the money right away, having requested funding even for those classrooms that use bilingual instruction.

Now that the lawsuit has been settled and the new law has been passed, the Pomona district has started tapping those funds, said Thelma Melendez, the district's chief academic officer.

"We felt there was no way we could exclude bilingual classes," Melendez said. "It just didn't make sense."

In the Oxnard School District, officials rejected Reading First funding last school year, in part because schools would have been forced to exclude the district's 200 bilingual classrooms.

District officials said they have been told that Oxnard schools would be among those first in line for funding.

O'Leary, the Oxnard school board trustee, said the money is much needed in a district where nearly half the students are English-language learners and reading scores lag below state averages.

"We need to start realizing it's to the betterment of our state and our nation to give these kids an equal education," said O'Leary, who joined the lawsuit not as a teacher or school board member, but as the father of three children educated in bilingual classrooms. "We can't have separate but equal. This is the only fair thing to do."

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