January 24, 1997 in Nation/World

Senate Panel Debates Funding For Ebonics Oakland School Officials, Linguist Defend Policy To Help Black Students

Los Angeles Times

Members of the Oakland, Calif., school district defended their controversial 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 emotional denunciations and vehement praise for the Oakland Unified School District’s stance.

However, 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 federal lawmakers that it will not use any of its existing federal funding for Ebonics instruction.

In the House, Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., already 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 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.

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 black students and helping them learn standard English.

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