State Of Confusion

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The first few months of the school year at Belvedere Elementary in East Los Angeles are likely to hold a few surprises--and probably a bit of chaos. California voters last spring approved the controversial Proposition 227, and while the new law aims to drastically curtail bilingual education in the state, legal experts and education officials statewide are still trying to figure out exactly what the measure requires schools like Belvedere to do.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that Belvedere's predominantly Hispanic community has yet to fully realize that the law has huge consequences for how its children are taught. "This hasn't really hit our parents yet," says Wil Shandy, the school's assistant principal. "But it will."

Indeed, observers throughout the state are predicting that the coming school year will be filled with trial and error for many schools in the state's 1,000 districts. The state school board has approved temporary regulations that, for the most part, leave to districts the task of interpreting the many open-ended terms in the new law. Though most administrators seem to welcome this flexibility, some worry that it leaves them more vulnerable to legal challenges down the road.

So far, opponents of the new law have tried and failed to block its implementation. In July, a federal district judge in San Francisco ruled that there is no constitutional right to bilingual education and that denying children bilingual instruction does not violate federal law. The plaintiffs have appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

With court action stalled, some educators have threatened not to comply with the law. Steve Zimmer, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Marshall Senior High School in Los Angeles, is organizing teacher resistance to the measure. "There's no question that there will be noncompliance," he says. "Teaching is hard enough without all these restrictions."

Such controversy is a byproduct not only of last year's Proposition 227 campaign but also the serious division within the state on the effectiveness of bilingual education. In recent years, one-third of California's 1.4 million limited-English-proficient students were enrolled in bilingual education programs. Supporters of the approach say it enables students to keep up academically while learning English.

Critics, however, counter that students in bilingual education do not learn English well or quickly. They mounted the campaign last year that led to passage of Proposition 227. The new law calls for LEP students to be taught in "sheltered" or "structured" English-immersion classrooms where "nearly all" instruction is in English. According to the law, students should remain in such programs for no more than one year before moving into the mainstream. Under some circumstances, parents can receive waivers from their districts that enable their children to be taught, at least in part, in their native language.

Though lawyers for the state board ruled that it could not offer school systems exemptions from the proposition, the board deliberately drew its rules with broad strokes to grant districts maximum flexibility in carrying out the law, says Bill Lucia, the board's executive director.

The central question many districts are now grappling with is how much teachers can use students' native languages without violating the law. State officials and the measure's backers have declined to elaborate on the law's requirement that programs be conducted "overwhelmingly" or "nearly all" in English.

Against such an uncertain landscape, districts need to make their own best judgment about how to proceed, explains Theresa Garcia, a policy analyst with the California School Boards Association. "It's a legal and a political issue for boards to determine what is 'overwhelmingly' or 'nearly all' in their communities," she says. "Districts are really all over the place."

Whatever a district decides, there's a lot at stake. The law allows parents to sue teachers and school officials who "willfully and repeatedly" refuse to provide English instruction. And backers of the measure will be watching for districts that "stretch the law as far as possible and maybe break that rubber band," says Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the "English for the Children" campaign that launched Proposition 227.

One of the key districts in the state will be Los Angeles. It educates 310,000 students with limited English proficiency--nearly a quarter of the state's total LEP population--and plans to offer parents four options. Parents can choose to place their child in a mainstream all-English class, in a bilingual class (which would require a waiver from the district ), or in one of two versions of English immersion that offer varying degrees of native-language help.

Other districts are going to the courts for guidance. The Oakland, Berkeley, and Hayward districts have filed a petition in state court to force the state board to consider exempting their entire school systems. A hearing is scheduled in late August.

San Francisco officials are taking a different approach. They have announced that they will add English-immersion options in schools while continuing bilingual programs, which they say are required under a 1976 federal consent decree. The decree stems from the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling two years earlier in Lau vs. Nichols. In that landmark decision, the court said that schools must give LEP students special help to ensure that they have equal access to the curricula.

"It is important for you to know," San Francisco superintendent Waldemar Rojas wrote in a letter to district parents and teachers, "that our decision to continue our bilingual programs is not a defiant act against Proposition 227."

--Lynn Schnaiberg

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