Ominous Saenz for LAUSD
Los Angeles Daily News
April 30, 2007
BY DOUG LASKEN, Guest Columnist
MOST Angelenos know about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's
plan to take over the Los Angeles Unified School
District, but almost no one knows the name of Thomas
Saenz, chief counsel to the mayor and the brains
behind AB 1381, the twice struck-down legislation
enabling the takeover.
So who is Thomas Saenz, and what do he and the mayor
intend for the LAUSD?
There has been little public information on either
question, and Saenz never answered repeated requests
for interviews for this article. But it's instructive
to delve into his past for clues to his and the
Saenz first came to public attention in 1998, when he
joined in a legal brief requesting an injunction
against a certain newly enabled educational practice.
See if you can guess what that practice was from the
language in the brief:
"(It) will wreak unimaginable harm on 1.4 million
(students) .. who will suffer long-term, irremediable
educational injury because of (its) extreme,
shortsighted prescriptions.... Their life prospects
will be shattered as a result ... This measure
demonstrably violates the Constitution of the United
Did you guess that the measure in question would allow
child molesters tobe teachers, or perhaps permit a
designated faculty marijuana smoking lounge?
If so, you guessed wrong. The brief was in fact
warning about the grave dangers of teaching the
English language to non-English-speaking children. The
legal brief was an appeal on behalf of the Mexican
American Legal Defense and Educational Fund for an
injunction against Proposition 227, passed
overwhelmingly in California in 1997, which put an end
to bilingual education in the state and mandated
English immersion for non-English speaking children.
In the LAUSD, bilingual education meant the exclusive
use of a student's native language, in most cases
Spanish, for all academic instruction. Any teaching of
English, or in English, was strictly forbidden. All
textbooks, whether social studies, science, or math,
had to be in Spanish, and all oral instruction had to
be delivered in Spanish. One 30-minute period per day
was allowed for "English as a Second Language," but
the ESL period was mandated to be strictly
conversational- no grammar, spelling or reading
lessons were permitted.
Not surprisingly, during the decades when bilingual
education ruled in California, the state's reading
scores plummeted to nearly the lowest in the nation.
Fortunately for the English-language learners of
California, the courts ignored Saenz's dire warnings
and upheld Proposition 227. Within one year of the
measure's implementation, elementary reading scores
throughout the state rose for the first time in almost
20 years. Far from inflicting untold damage on young
minds, per Saenz's fervid warnings, English immersion
gave thousands of English learners their first shot at
learning the common language of our country.
Shortly after his failed brief against 227, Saenz
became a board member of the Los Angeles County Office
of Education, where he continues to serve today. A
perusal of the past six years of board minutes gives
some clues about Saenz's approach to educational
It is clear, for starters, that he is still hostile to
English instruction. Never once in the six years do
the minutes show him inquiring about English immersion
techniques, though he repeatedly asks county school
representatives if they have adequate Spanish-speaking
teachers and textbooks in Spanish. He is also on
record in support of Jackie Goldberg, former LAUSD
board member and state assemblywoman, who promoted
bilingual education and supported the now discredited
"whole language" anti-phonics, anti-grammar approach
We will know in the next few weeks if Villaraigosa
will appeal the 2nd District Court's rejection of his
school-takeover plan to the state Supreme Court. But
the court's strongly worded rebuke of Saenz's legal
reasoning in defense of AB 1381 must be resonating in
the mayor's mind. The court forcefully rejected Saenz'
contention that the Los Angeles City Charter, which
mandates a strong, popularly elected school board with
power to select a superintendent, could be
circumvented by the state Legislature.
Just as Saenz misjudged the legality of Proposition
227, he appears to have done the same with the mayor's
takeover bill. Meanwhile, absent any substantive talk
from the mayor or Saenz about their specific
intentions for the district, we are left with such
clues as outlined above.
Sadly, they are not encouraging.
Doug Lasken teaches high school English for the LAUSD
and consults for the State Board of Education. Write
to him by e-mail at