Prop. 227 To End Bilingual Education Wins

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Civil rights groups immediately filed a class action in federal court seeking to block implementation of Proposition 227, also known as the "English for the Children" initiative. The suit charges that the proposition violates civil rights law and the U.S. Constitution.

And some teachers vowed to defy the initiative and continue bilingual education in their classrooms.

"Bilingual education has become the scapegoat for all of education's ills," said Marina Salas, a bilingual teacher at Hoover Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. "I'm going to continue what I'm doing because that is what my students need."

Ron K.Unz

Although opponents reaped a rush of campaign contributions in the final weeks before the June 2 election, won the backing of all the state's gubernatorial candidates and the Clinton administration, and garnered the endorsements of a slew of education, civic, and civil rights groups, ultimately they were unable to close the gap to defeat the initiative.

An estimated 61 percent of voters statewide approved Proposition 227; 39 percent cast votes against it. The proposition calls for limited-English-proficient students to be taught in a special English-immersion program, in most cases for no more than a year, before moving into mainstream English classrooms.

Schools Seeking Guidance

Polls released just days before the vote showed that support for the measure had fallen from a high of 71 percent in April to 61 percent in May--matching the actual yes tally this week. About 38 percent of the state's 14.6 million registered voters went to the polls, but a breakdown of the June 2 electorate by party and ethnicity was not immediately available.

Supporters say students do not learn English well enough or quickly enough in bilingual classes, where they are taught in their native languages for at least part of the school day. Critics say 227 is a one-size-fits-all approach to educating children and a dangerous precedent for mandating pedagogy at the ballot box.

"We are extremely pleased by the overwhelming support throughout California," said Sherri Annis, the spokeswoman for the English for the Children campaign. "We believe this is a victory for all California schoolchildren, but especially those in the Latino community, who will have a better educational and economic opportunity."

In conceding defeat, the "No on 227" campaign spokeswoman, Holli Thier, said opponents would "continue to do everything we can to ensure that [LEP] children learn English and are given the same academic opportunities as every other child in the public school system."

The state education department plans to give guidance to schools in the coming weeks. The initiative calls for the law to kick in for school terms that begin more than 60 days after passage, which would mean the fall for most districts.

"We know nearly 1,000 school districts are looking to us for guidance. But the first message is, stay the course," said Doug Stone, a department spokesman.

Widespread Confusion

Those districts are all over the map in how prepared they are to deal with the new law, said Theresa Garcia, a policy analyst for the California School Boards Association.

"There's a lot of concern and a lot of confusion," she said.

In Los Angeles, where nearly half the district's 667,000 students are LEP, officials have drafted initial contingency plans.

But on June 3, Superintendent Ruben Zacarias sent a memo to all employees directing them to make no immediate changes.

In San Francisco, where a majority of county voters rejected 227, Superintendent Waldemar Rojas vowed that the 64,000-student district would take any and all measures to fight implementation. "It is our responsibility as educators to prevent bad policy from wreaking havoc on our instructional programs."

A handful of districts, such as the 11,000-student K-8 San Mateo-Foster City district near San Francisco, have filed petitions asking the state school board to grant waivers from Proposition 227 and allow them to continue bilingual education programs.

State agencies or the courts have yet to interpret the language of the initiative, so there is some confusion among administrators about what they must do.

For example, Proposition 227 calls for instruction in so-called sheltered English-immersion classes where "nearly all" instruction is in English. And it calls for language-minority students to move into mainstream classrooms once they have acquired a "good working knowledge" of English.

And while the initiative outlines circumstances under which parents can request that their children continue in bilingual education, it leaves to administrators the task of fleshing those out.

Don Iglesias, the assistant superintendent for instruction in the 9,000-student Santa Cruz district and a board member of the Association of California School Administrators, said no one really knows what classrooms will look like come fall. And districts have just started to contemplate the myriad issues raised, from staffing and teacher training to student assignment and assessment.

"As administrators, we're stuck in the middle," Mr. Iglesias said. "And no one has an answer yet."

'Everyone Impacted'

What is clear is that many educators are concerned about what could happen to LEP students under Proposition 227 if it passes legal muster.

Spending one year in an English-immersion program could mean students' access to grade-level academic instruction is delayed by a year. A draft contingency plan from the Los Angeles district envisions that more than 3,000 newly enrolling LEP high school students would wind up spending five years in high school in order to meet graduation requirements.

The draft goes on to say students' primary languages could be used in school orientation for beginning LEP students, to explain emergency procedures, and to help basic comprehension. "Only minimal use of primary language will be acceptable," the plan says.

Many administrators and teachers predict that more LEP students will be kept back a grade or will drop out of school. And they anticipate that all children--not just LEP students--will be affected as mainstream teachers grapple with students who may not be prepared to deal with grade-level work in English after one year in immersion.

"Everyone's education will be impacted by this in the regular classroom. And that's something that most people haven't yet realized," said James Waters, who was the superintendent of the predominantly Hispanic El Rancho Unified School District near Los Angeles until his retirement in May. Roughly one-third of the district's 11,500 students are LEP. "I think some of our LEP kids can make it," Mr. Waters said. "But a lot more won't."

Legal Questions

Some educators and legal experts have raised the possibility of schools' getting around the law's restriction on bilingual education by starting charter schools. Under California law, charter schools are generally exempt from much of the state education code, which Proposition 227 now joins.

Others are petitioning the state school board for a waiver from the initiative. But Bill Lucia, the state board's executive director, said that though the board generally has the authority to waive parts of the education code, it has yet to decide whether it will consider Proposition 227 waivers.

"It's not clear that's a road the board will want to go down," Mr. Lucia said.

In the meantime, many California educators are hoping for clarification from the courts. While most legal experts agree that federal law does not require bilingual education, a landmark 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols requires schools to provide LEP students with some form of special help. And civil rights groups seeking to block the initiative argue that students will be denied access to core academics, in violation of federal civil rights laws that guarantee language-minority students access to equal educational opportunity, said Thomas A. Saenz, a regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. MALDEF is among the advocacy groups that filed suit June 3 against Proposition 227 in federal district court in San Francisco.

Other recent California ballot measures, such as those dealing with illegal immigration, have been tied up in court challenges. It is unclear whether Proposition 227 will share the same fate, said Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California. ("Judge Rejects Prop 187 Bans on Calif. Services," Nov. 29, 1995.)

Tish Busselle, an assistant superintendent in the San Mateo-Foster City schools, said her district is not sitting still.

"This will mean chaos for our parents and our schools," she said. "We're trying to plan ahead. And we're not banking on the legal action to bail us out."

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