The ballot initiative, Proposition 227, that allows teachers to be sued if they refuse to teach non-English speaking children in English-only classes is not unconstitutional, ruled a federal court for the central district of California.
In 1998, California voters passed an initiative titled "English Language in Public Schools." The initiative required limited English students to be taught in English immersion classes. It eliminated bilingual education as a standard option unless a parent requested a waiver of the English-only mandate. The initiative also contained a provision that stated any teacher or school official who refused to comply with the English-only requirement could be held personally liable for attorney fees and damages. (See Educ. Code, § 320.)
Teachers File Lawsuit
The California Teachers Association (CTA) filed a lawsuit on behalf of teachers against the State Board of Education. CTA argued that the provision which held teachers personally liable for refusing to comply with the initiative was vague and unconstitutional. The teachers argued that the language in the Proposition was not specific enough to allow them to understand how much use of a foreign language other than English would subject them to liability.
Examples were given that the use of Spanish in disciplinary situations and instructions regarding earthquake safety procedures could subject them to lawsuits and disciplinary action. Additional claims were made that teachers were limiting their discussion of bilingual options with parents, as a result of a fear that such discussions would be interpreted as advocating bilingual education.
Statute Limited to Classroom Instruction
The lawsuit was dismissed, and the court found that the Proposition was not vague in any of its terms. The plain language of the statute limits its requirements to "teaching" and "instruction." The Proposition does not completely prohibit languages other than English. "The Proposition does not mention or refer to any prohibition of languages other than English used in disciplining students, emergency training, social interactions, tutoring, parent-teacher conferences, or any of the other situations listed by the Plaintiffs," said the court.
The provision which the Association challenged only subjected teachers and administrators to liability if they "willfully and repeatedly" violated the requirements of the law. Therefore, there must be a finding of intent before imposing liability. Additionally, the statute does not allow for punitive damages and "actual damages" must be supported by proof at trial.
Comment: This is one of a series of lawsuits challenging Proposition 227. The statute has been upheld by the courts in each case. We recently reported a decision where a California appellate court reversed a superior court ruling, and held that school districts cannot request a waiver of Proposition 227 from the State Board of Education. The waiver provision in the Education Code cannot be used to avoid the mandate of the statute, only parents can request such a waiver. (See Vol. VI CELR, p. 25.) The State Supreme Court refused to review the appellate ruling and the decision is now final and binding. (See McLaughlin v. Board of Educ. (1999) 75 Cal.App.4th 916; Pet. den. 12/21/99.)
California Teachers Association v. Davis (1999) No. 98-9694.