Original URL: http://www.nctimes.net/news/2003/20030307/92937.html

Ruling may lead to funds to help kids learn to read

North Country Times
March 7, 2003

A Superior Court ruling on Thursday could open the door to millions of dollars that could help California's immigrant children learn how to read.

For some schools in Vista and Escondido, hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants hang in the balance.

In a lawsuit filed this week in San Francisco Superior Court, a coalition of parents and civil rights groups accused top state education officials of unlawfully implementing the federal Reading First grant program.

The state's policy for handling the grant, which totals $133 million per year for six years in California, effectively prevents schools with bilingual programs from collecting the funds, the plaintiffs argue.

Part of the Reading First grants fund teacher training and supplemental materials for kindergarten through third grade.

On Thursday, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ronald E. Quidachay ruled that the state must justify its eligibility requirements for the grant program. He set a March 26 hearing date.

"We are extremely pleased with the court's decision," said Mary Hernandez, a Carlsbad attorney employed by Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, one of eight civil rights firms in the state involved in the lawsuit. "I believe that the state defendants will not be able to justify their discriminatory actions and that we will continue to prevail."

"The state defendants must stop making backroom political decisions that deny funds and programs to some of our state's neediest children," she said.

Attorneys for the state Department of Education would not comment on the lawsuit Thursday.

But state Education Department spokesman Phil Garcia said the California Reading First Plan adheres to federal guidelines, which set a goal for students to be able to read at grade level in English by the end of third grade.

In addition to the state Department of Education, the lawsuit names the state Board of Education and superintendent of public instruction as defendants.

On Thursday, attorneys for the state told Quidachay the state will hold off on distributing Reading First funds until April 9 at the earliest.

Hernandez said the plaintiffs will ask the judge to order the state to extend its deadline for applying for Reading First funds, if eligibility requirements change.

At the heart of the case is a state law that requires public school students to receive instruction in English unless their parents sign waivers allowing them to be taught in their native tongue.

For bilingual programs to qualify for Reading First funds, they must provide up to 2 1/2 hours of English language instruction every day.

That rule effectively eliminates bilingual classes from eligibility, said Carlos Ulloa, a reading specialist at Escondido's Lincoln primary and intermediate schools.

A declaration by Ulloa is included in the lawsuit.

In an interview Thursday, Ulloa said the state's implementation of Reading First disqualifies Lincoln from netting up to $300,000 a year for six years.

When he researched the program at the federal level, Ulloa said he found no mention of restrictions for bilingual programs. The California Department of Education's Web site presented contrary information, however, so Ulloa called a federal Department of Education attorney who oversees Reading First.

In his declaration, Ulloa wrote, the attorney "told me that (she) had been receiving lots of calls from California regarding this issue and thought maybe the U.S. Department of Education might need to give guidance to California on it. When I described the exclusionary eligibility rules, she also commented that California must like lawsuits and suggested that it was a lawsuit waiting to happen."

At Vista Unified School District, Crestview, Grapevine and Bobier schools serve more than 1,000 students in bilingual programs.

If future court rulings ease state restrictions on Reading First funds, the schools could be eligible for annual grants of up to $100,000 each.

"We're in a wait and see mode right now," said Assistant Superintendent Gail Ryan. "They're operating the Reading First grant like the budget ---- there's nothing that's decisive."

Contact staff writer Adam Kaye at (760) 943-2312 or akaye@nctimes.com.