Resolution of the Board of Education Adopting the Report and Recommendations of the African-American Task Force
Resolution of the Board of Education Adopting the Report and Recommendations of the African-American Task Force
A Policy Statement and Directing the Superintendent of Schools to Devise a Program to Improve the English Language Acquisition and Application Skills of African-American Students
By: Oakland Unified School District Board
Date: December 18, 1996
Source: Linguist List. "Original Oakland Resolution on Ebonics." December 18, 1996 〈http://linguistlist.org/topics/ebonics/ebonics-res1.html〉 (accessed July 16, 2006).
About the Author: The Governing Board is the elected policy-making body for the Oakland, California, Unified School District, which serves over 50,000 students. The Linguist List is a major online source of information and resources on languages and language analysis. It is maintained by linguistics professors and graduate students and jointly edited by Eastern Michigan University and Wayne State University.
In December 1996 the Oakland Unified School District Board in California passed a resolution that formally recognized Ebonics as the official language of the 28,000 African American students in the District, and proposed special educational programs directed at this language group.
The term "Ebonics" was first used in a 1975 book by Robert Williams to describe the language used by American descendents of slaves from West Africa and the Niger-Congo region. The language is also commonly known as "Black English" or "African American Vernacular English" (AAVE). The Linguistic Society of America has confirmed that African American communications have a unique linguistic style, and the Oakland Resolution was based on the principle that Ebonics is a legitimate, distinct language and not just an English dialect.
Oakland was one of the few school districts in America at that time which had a majority of African-American students, and the district was facing severe problems of educational under-achievement within this ethnic group, whose typical grade point average was a D+. African-Americans accounted for 71 percent of all special needs students in the district at that time. Underpinning the Resolution was the belief that the low educational achievement and other problems of African-American students were related to their difficulties in Standard English, which was not the language they normally spoke at home. It proposed the implementation of a training program for the district's teachers that would help them to identify how Ebonics could be used in education to improve African-American student performance, in the same way as other bilingual language programs that qualified for federal funding under Title VII. Under this legislation, schools can apply for funding for bilingual education programs for their Limited English Proficiency (LEP) or No English Proficiency (NEP) students. The majority of bilingual educational programs are directed at Latino and Asian students.
There was a national outcry in response to the Oakland Resolution, with critics arguing that Ebonics was not a distinct language at all, and that Ebonics programs should not be eligible for federal or state funding. Some accused the Oakland school board of trying to appropriate federal funding intended for non-English speaking immigrants. Almost immediately, Secretary Richard Riley announced that Ebonics was nothing other than an English dialect and stated that Title VII funding was only for programs directed at non-English speaking students. As a result, the original Resolution was retracted and it was replaced in January 1997 with a much revised, toned-down version.
Much of the controversy over the Oakland Resolution was apparently due to its misrepresentation in the media, where it was portrayed as a proposal to replace the teaching of Standard English with Ebonics in Oakwood, rather than a proposal to develop programs using Ebonics as a tool in the teaching of Standard English. In fact, this was not new: The educational method known as 'contrastive analysis,' which involved comparing Ebonics and Standard English, had been in use in a number of states, including California, since the 1960s, and was believed to be helping to improve the educational performance of Ebonics speakers.
A bill was introduced in the Senate in March 1997 that proposed eliminating specific sources of federal funding for nonstandard English educational programs, particularly "Ebonics, Black English, Black language or African American Vernacular English." However, the Ebonics debate continued, with those in favor of recognizing Ebonics as a formal language arguing that it would improve the educational prospects of African American students, while others asserted that it is not a separate language, and that Ebonics programs should not therefore be eligible for special funding.
RESOLUTION OF THE BOARD OF EDUCATION ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN TASK FORCE; A POLICY STATEMENT AND DIRECTING THE SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS TO DEVISE A PROGRAM TO IMPROVE THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AND APPLICATION SKILLS OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENTS.
Whereas, numerous validated scholarly studies demonstrate that African American students as part of their culture and history as African people possess and utilize a language described in various scholarly approaches as "Ebonics"-(literally Black sounds) or Pan African Communication Behaviors or African Language Systems; and
Whereas, these studies have also demonstrated that African Language Systems are genetically-based and not a dialect of English; and
Whereas, these studies demonstrate that such West and Niger-Congo African languages have been officially recognized and addressed in the mainstream public educational community as worthy of study, understanding or application of its principles, laws and structures for the benefit of African American students both in terms of positive appreciation of the language and these students' acquisition and mastery of English language skills; and
Whereas, such recognition by scholars has given rise over the past 15 years to legislation passed by the State of California recognizing the unique language stature of descendants of slaves, with such legislation being prejudicially and unconstitutionally vetoed repeatedly by various California state governors; and
Whereas, judicial cases in states other than California have recognized the unique language stature of African American pupils, and such recognition by courts has resulted in court-mandated educational programs which have substantially benefitted African American children in the interest of vindicating their equal protection of the law rights under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution; and
Whereas, the Federal Bilingual Education Act (20 USC 1402 et seq.) mandates that local educational agencies "build their capacities to establish, implement and sustain programs of instruction for children and youth of limited English proficiency," and
Whereas, the interests of the Oakland Unified School District in providing equal opportunities for all of its students dictate limited English proficient educational programs recognizing the English language acquisition and improvement skills of African American students are as fundamental as is application of bilingual education principles for others whose primary languages are other than English; and
Whereas, the standardized tests and grade scores of African American students in reading and language art skills measuring their application of English skills are substantially below state and national norms and that such deficiencies will be remedied by application of a program featuring African Language Systems principles in instructing African American children both in their primary language and in English, and
Whereas, standardized tests and grade scores will be remedied by application of a program with teachers and aides who are certified in the methodology of featuring African Language Systems principles in instructing African American children both in their primary language and in English. The certified teachers of these students will be provided incentives including, but not limited to salary differentials,
Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Board of Education officially recognizes the existence and the cultural and historic bases of West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems, and each language as the predominantly primary language of African American students; and
Be it further resolved that the Board of Education hereby adopts the report recommendations and attached Policy Statement of the District's African American Task Force on language stature of African American speech; and
Be it further resolved that the Superintendent in conjunction with her staff shall immediately devise and implement the best possible academic program for imparting instruction to African American students in their primary language for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language whether it is known as "Ebonics," "African Language Systems," "Pan African Communication Behaviors" or other description, and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills; and
Be it further resolved that the Board of Education hereby commits to earmark District general and special funding as is reasonably necessary and appropriate to enable the Superintendent and her staff to accomplish the foregoing; and
Be it further resolved that the Superintendent and her staff shall utilize the input of the entire Oakland educational community as well as state and federal scholarly and educational input in devising such a program; and
Be it further resolved, that periodic reports on the progress of the creation and implementation of such an educational program shall be made to Board of Education at least once per month commencing at the Board meeting of December 18, 1996.
There is persuasive empirical evidence that, predicated on analysis of the phonology, morphology and syntax that currently exists as systematic, rule governed and predictable patterns exist in the grammar of African-American speech. The validated and persuasive linguistic evidence is that African-Americans (1) have retained a West and Niger-Congo African linguistic structure in the substratum of their speech and (2) by this criteria are not native speakers of black dialect or any other dialect of English.
Moreover, there is persuasive empirical evidence that, owing to their history as United States slave descendants of West and Niger-Congo African origin, to the extent that African-Americans have been born into, reared in, and continue to live in linguistic environments that are different from the Euro-American English speaking population, African-American people and their children, are from home environments in which a language other than English language is dominant within the meaning of "environment where a Language other than English is dominant" as defined in Public Law 1-13-382 (20 U.S.C. 7402, et seq.).
The policy of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is that all pupils are equal and are to be treated equally. Hence, all pupils who have difficulty speaking, reading, writing or understanding the English language and whose difficulties may deny to them the opportunity to learn successfully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in our society are to be treated equally regardless of their race or national origin.
As in the case of Asian-American, Latino-American, Native American and all other pupils in this District who come from backgrounds or environments where a language other than English is dominant, African-American pupils shall not, because of their race, be subtly dehumanized, stigmatized, discriminated against or denied. Asian-American, Latino-American, Native American and all other language different children are provided general funds for bilingual education, English as Second Language (ESL) and State and Federal (Title VIII) Bilingual education programs to address their limited and non-English proficient (LEP/NEP) needs. African-American pupils are equally entitled to be tested and, where appropriate, shall be provided general funds and State and Federal (Title VIII) bilingual education and ESL programs to specifically address their LEP/NEP needs.
All classroom teachers and aids who are bilingual in Nigritian Ebonics (African-American Language) and English shall be given the same salary differentials and merit increases that are provided to teachers of the non-African American LEP pupils in the OUSD.
With a view toward assuring that parents of African-American pupils are given the knowledge base necessary to make informed choices, it shall be the policy of the Oakland Unified School District that all parents of LEP (Limited English Proficient) pupils are to be provided the opportunity to partake of any and all language and culture specific teacher education and training classes designed to address their child's LEP needs.
On all home language surveys given to parents of pupils requesting home language identification or designations, a description of the District's programmatic consequences of their choices will be contained.
Nothing in this Policy shall preclude or prevent African-American parents who view their child's limited English proficiency as being non-standard English, as opposed to being West and Niger-Congo African Language based, from exercising their right to choose and to have their child's speech disorders and English Language deficits addressed by special education and/or other District programs.
The Ebonics debate has never been fully resolved, and surfaces from time to time, particularly in the context of the continued low performance of African American students compared with other groups. In 2001, for example, it was reported that African Americans were three times more likely to have special educational needs than white students.
Many factors may be contributing to the low educational performance of African Americans, including language-related issues. In the case of non-English speaking students, such as Hispanics for example, research has shown that educational performance can be improved by the provision of bilingual education. Because Ebonics is not recognized as a distinct language that is eligible for bilingual education program funding, it is difficult to investigate whether special language programs could raise the educational levels of African American students. The Ebonics debate of the late 1990s did, however, serve to highlight the problem of low educational achievement within this group, bringing to public attention the need for measures to address the issue.
Baugh, John. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Delpit, Lisa, and Theresa Perry. The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Wheeler, Rebecca. The Workings of Language: From Prescriptions to Perspectives. Westport, Conn., and London: Praeger Publishers, 1999.
Crozier, Karen, and Smith, Ernie. "Ebonics Is Not Black English." Western Journal of Black Studies 2 (22) (1998): 109-116.