Sunday, August 2, 1998
Prop. 227 Jitters Hit Teachers
BERKELEY -- About this time most summers, bilingual teacher Mary Rose Ortega looks over her lesson plans and decides what units to teach when school doors swing open in September.
Not this year.
In June, voters passed Proposition 227, which virtually eliminated bilingual education classes with its decree that all children should be taught "overwhelmingly" in English.
Ortega knows the measure means change for her Los Angeles classroom.
She's just not sure how much.
"Nobody knows, that's the scary part," she said. "It's really depressing. It's all in the air what's going to happen."
Ortega isn't the only one with fall jitters.
The measure formally takes effect this week, leaving teachers and administrators across the state struggling for answers to a big question: How will Proposition 227 translate in the classroom?
"Some teachers are definitely pulling their hair out," said Dale Martin, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association.
"They're lost," agreed Jim Sweeney, superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District. "I can't remember anything like this."
Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, is starting a task force to help schools adjust. She said it will recommend effective programs and materials to quickly upgrade pupils' English skills. Its first meeting is scheduled for Sept. 3.
Prop. 227, backed by businessman Ron Unz, requires that children who have limited English ability be put in a one-year immersion course. After 30 days, parents can get a waiver to put their child back in bilingual education under limited conditions.
Opponents lost the first round in court when a federal judge upheld the new law in July.
Civil rights groups tried Friday to block implementation with a lawsuit charging that the plan was developed too hastily and will hurt children. But a federal judge denied the organizations' request for a temporary restraining order to bar school officials from putting the new program into place at year-round schools Monday.
The new law applies to semesters beginning more than 60 days after the election, and the State Board of Education has issued temporary regulations giving districts the power to draw up their own implementation plans.
Weeks away from the start of school, districts are expressing attitudes from defiance to compliance.
Sacramento plans to abide by the new rules, although Sweeney says a year would have been a more realistic timetable.
In Los Angeles, the nation's second largest school district, officials will offer four options, including two that would teach students mainly in English but give help in their primary language through tutors, aides and some teachers.
Other districts are fighting the change.
The Oakland, Hayward and Berkeley school districts went to state court to try to force the State Board of Education to grant them blanket exemptions under the proposition's waiver clause. Oakland officials say they are bound to provide primary language instruction under an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights.
Two Orange County districts are asking Eastin to spare their "dual immersion" programs by using her authority to waive most education laws for alternative and magnet schools. The programs at stake would enroll both English and Spanish speakers, with each learning some core subjects in their non-native language.
The request, still pending, has given rise to speculation that other programs could be exempted this way. But Prop. 227 spokeswoman Sheri Annis said she believes any waivers except to charter schools would be illegal.
San Francisco officials, meanwhile, sent parents a letter declaring that the district will continue to offer "a variety of programs" for English-language learners as well as English immersion.
The letter said the move was "not an act of defiance," but merely followed a 1970s federal consent decree requiring the district to provide limited English-speaking children with access to math, social studies and science while they are learning English.
Unz called that argument "complete nonsense," pointing out that Prop. 227 has already been ruled constitutional.
Some have looked for wiggle room in the fine print, suggesting that the word "overwhelmingly" could mean 60 percent or less.
But Unz said the term "overwhelming" refers to regular classrooms. The operative words in describing the immersion courses are that "nearly all" of instruction will be in English. Unz said he interprets that to be something like 98 percent.
"I think we may have to end up taking a lot of these districts to court," Unz said, citing a provision in Prop. 227 allowing parents to sue if teachers or other officials "willfully and repeatedly" refuse to follow the new law.
Unz successfully attacked the old bilingual education system as an unwieldy bureaucracy that by its own measure redesignated only 5 percent to 7 percent of children a year as English speakers.
He argued that most youngsters should be able to pick up English within a year. Anything longer, he warned, ran the risk of pushing them hopelessly behind their peers.
Ortega, a 21-year veteran of the Los Angeles schools, wasn't optimistic about the immersion method.
"It's hard to teach a kid how to read in English if he can't speak it or understand it," she said. "The kids are going to be looking at you like, 'What are you saying?' "
Still, she predicted that teachers are "going to teach because that's what we do, and I'm sure that we'll all do our best."
In Oakland, parent Jose Zambrano is also worried about the new semester.
Zambrano, who wants his two young sons to stay in bilingual classes but says a daughter about to enter fourth grade is ready to move to the mainstream, supported his district's court battle against Prop. 227. But he worries about how the confusion over implementation would play out in classrooms.
"The thing that concerns me the most is the education of the kids. You have a lot of kids who are going to be in the classroom without the proper teacher," he said.