English-Language Learners

Uncertainty Follows Vote on Prop. 227

By Lynn Schnaiberg — June 10, 1998 7 min read
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California’s educators and its 1.4 million limited-English-proficient students are in limbo.

Gloria Matta Tuchman

Voters last week overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative that calls for the virtual elimination of bilingual education from the state’s public schools. Now, officials in districts statewide are waiting to find out what happens next.

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 federal civil rights law and the U.S. Constitution.

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.”

The state education department will 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,” said Doug Stone, a department spokesman. “But the message for now is, stay the course.”

Some teachers vowed to defy the initiative and continue bilingual instruction 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.”

But Gloria Matta Tuchman, the Orange County teacher who co-sponsored Proposition 227 along with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, said opponents’ concerns are largely unfounded. By perpetuating what she calls a failed bilingual education system, advocates, policymakers, and some educators themselves compelled voters to take matters into their own hands, she said.

“And now they are obstructing the will of the people and state law. They are wrong to try to subvert this in any way,” Ms. Tuchman said. “Californians have spoken, and our initiative will withstand any challenge.”

Ms. Tuchman and incumbent Delaine Eastin were the two top vote getters in the primary for state schools chief last week and will square off in November.

61 Percent Approval

Although the opponents reaped a rush of contributions in the weeks before the June 2 vote, won the backing of all the state’s gubernatorial candidates and the Clinton administration, and garnered the support of a slew of education, civic, and civil rights groups, they came nowhere near defeating the initiative.

An estimated 61 percent of those voting favored Proposition 227. The measure 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.

Polls released just days before the vote showed that support had fallen from a high of 71 percent in April to 61 percent in May--matching the estimated yes tally. About 38 percent of the state’s 14.6 million registered voters went to the polls.

Though earlier polls found that more than half of the state’s Latinos supported Proposition 227, a CNN/Los Angeles Times exit poll of 5,143 voters from 100 polling places statewide found that only 37 percent of Hispanic voters had voted for the measure.

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.

Sherri Annis, the spokeswoman for the English for the Children campaign, said:"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 the 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.”

Districts Mull Next Steps

In Los Angeles, where nearly half the district’s 667,000 students are LEP, officials have drafted initial contingency plans to put the new law into effect.

But the day after the vote, 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 Proposition 227, Superintendent Waldemar Rojas vowed that the 64,000-student district would seek a way to fight implementation. “It is our responsibility as educators to prevent bad policy from wreaking havoc on our instructional programs,” he said in a written statement.

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.

But for districts such as the 29,000-student Orange Unified system, it’s essentially business as usual. Since last September, the district has used an English-immersion approach with its 7,200 LEP students. The district has been engaged in legal battles since it decided to abandon bilingual education last year.

“There are some questions about exactly how this works out, but I think the spirit of our program fits well within the parameters of 227,” said Neil McKinnon, an assistant superintendent in the district. “Our community is overwhelmingly in favor of English immersion.”

Just 30 percent of California’s 1.4 million limited-English-proficient students now receive bilingual education. The state’s bilingual education law expired in 1987, but the state has continued its requirement that schools teach in students’ native languages “when necessary.”

Neither the state nor the courts have interpreted the language of the initiative, so there is confusion among administrators about what they must do.

For example, Proposition 227 calls for instruction in so-called sheltered English-immersion classes in which “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 guidelines 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.

“As administrators, we’re stuck in the middle,” Mr. Iglesias said.

‘Everyone Impacted’

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

They say spending one year in an English-immersion program could mean students’ access to grade-level academic instruction is delayed by a year--a charge Ms. Tuchman vehemently rejects.

And many administrators and teachers predict 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 recently retired as superintendent of the predominantly Hispanic 11,500-student El Rancho Unified district near Los Angeles.

It is unclear what the response will be to the districts that are petitioning the state board for waivers from the initiative, which is now part of the state education code. Bill Lucia, the board’s executive director, said that though the board generally has the authority to waive parts of the code, it has yet to decide whether it will consider Proposition 227 waivers.

In the meantime, many California educators are hoping for clarification from the courts. Most legal experts agree that federal law does not require bilingual education. But the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols required schools to provide LEP students with some form of special help. Civil rights groups say 227 would violate students’ rights to equal educational opportunity.

A 1994 California ballot measure, Proposition 187, restricting services for immigrants, has been tied up in court. But it is far from clear if Proposition 227 will share its fate, said Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California.

Tish Busselle, an assistant superintendent in the San Mateo-Foster City schools, one of the systems seeking a state waiver, said her district is not sitting still.

“We’re trying to plan ahead,” she said. “And we’re not banking on the legal action to bail us out.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 1998 edition of Education Week as Uncertainty Follows Vote on Prop. 227


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