L A Times Friday, January 24, 1997
U.S. SENATE PANEL GRILLS OFFICIALS ON EBONICS POLICY
By MARC LACEY, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON--Members of the Oakland school district defended their Ebonics policy before a U.S. Senate panel Thursday, insisting that federal money is not going to be used to instruct students in black English.
But the delegation of school officials, accompanied by an Oakland student and the linguist who coined the term Ebonics, were
subjected to pointed questions from skeptical senators, who noted that they control $10 billion in federal education funding.
"I'm not ready to make a judgment on the subject," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education, said after a two-hour hearing featuring both emotionaldenunciations and vehement praise for the Oakland Unified School District's stance.
But one of his colleagues, Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), had made up his mind even before the first speaker took the microphone. "I think Ebonics is absurd," he said. "This is political correctness that has gone out of control."
Although the Oakland school board originally had declared Ebonics a second language that is"genetically based," it has retreated from that contentious stance. The board's current position essentially is that it wants to educate its teachers to be tolerant and respectful of students who speak Ebonics.
At the time the board announced its policy, there were suggestions that the district would apply for additional federal funds to teach Ebonics as a second language. That possibility has vanished and the board now finds itself before Congress fighting to assure lawmakers that it will not use any of its federal funding for Ebonics instruction.
In the House, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) has introduced a resolution that would prevent federal education money from going toward "any program that is based upon the premise that Ebonics is a legitimate language."
Specter said that he convened the Senate hearing to gather more facts before the Senate has to deal with the issue. The district receives standard federal educational funding as well as money to help disadvantaged students and to teach English as a second language.
In Sacramento on Thursday, a California Senate official announced plans to introduce legislation next week to prevent Ebonics-based instruction in the state.
The bill by Senate Republican Whip Raymond N. Haynes (R-Riverside) would block the use of state funds for any Ebonics instruction, including not only the rare practice of teaching Ebonics as a language but also the more common approach of using it as a tool to teach English.
"I believe that this whole concept of Ebonics is institutionalizing bad communication skills," he said.
Haynes has joined with Los Angeles teacher Ezola Foster to form a nationwide group called Stop Ebonics/Save Our Children. Foster was a leading backer of Proposition 187, the 1995 state initiative that voters approved to bar illegal immigrants from public services.
During testimony before the Specter subcommittee, school board members blamed the uproar over their policy on mischaracterizations by the news media and said that their goal always has been nothing more than raising the achievement levels of African American students and helping them learn standard English.
Toni Cook, a member of the Oakland board, said that the policy has already succeeded just by focusing national attention on the difficulties facing black youths.
"If we've contributed nothing else to the discussion . . . you and I are sitting here before America talking about the educational status of African American young people," Cook told Specter.
Michael Lampkins, a 17-year-old Oakland senior, urged the senators to allow teachers to communicate with their students in a language that they understand.
Noting that Oakland's black students have an average grade of D-plus, Oakland schools Supt. Carolyn M. Getridge said: "The action of the board is a bold response to a growing gap between those who are successful in our public schools and those who are not."
But Amos C. Brown, chairman of the Civil Rights Commission of the National Baptist Convention, strongly opposed infusing Ebonics into the classroom.
"Low achievement does not reside in their genes," Brown said of black youths, suggesting that they turn off television at night and focus more on homework.
But the three linguists who attended the hearing said that Ebonics is a well-established form of expression with its own intricate rules of grammar.
Times education writer Amy Pyle contributed to this story from Los Angeles.