Associated Press

Sunday, October 11, 1998

Fight Over Bilingual Ed May Play out in Court
By Michelle Locke, Associated Press Writer

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- With a dark blue marker on a shiny white board, first-grade teacher Sandra Villarreal draws a crescent moon surrounded by stars.

"Ahhh, la luna," chorus her attentive pupils.

Such talk was banished from California classrooms in June. By passing Proposition 227, voters decreed children must be taught in English and no longer assisted with instruction in their native tongues.

But last month, parents of the children in Ms. Villarreal's class at Sherman Oaks Elementary cast a vote of their own -- exercising their right to request waivers putting their children back in bilingual education.

"It's better," says parent Oliva Rojas. "When the basics are explained in your own language, you understand more."

Mrs. Rojas is among thousands of California parents requesting waivers, but even before they acted -- after a mandated 30-day waiting period -- many schools had been keeping bilingual education alive. They did this by interpreting Proposition 227's mandate that classes be taught "nearly all" in English to mean that as much as 40 percent of instruction could be in a second language.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the voters' "No" to bilingual education was not the final word on this divisive teaching method.

"There are no districts right now in compliance with Proposition 227," declares Alice Callaghan, a leading 227 proponent. "It's going to take the California Supreme Court to make school districts in California comply."

Proposition 227, which passed with 61 percent of the vote, ordered children who don't speak English to be placed in a one-year English immersion program. But a subsection allowed parents to request a child be taken out of English immersion after 30 calendar days if the student is over 10, already speaks English or has "special needs."

The state Board of Education says waiver decisions are up to districts and indications are that many are interpreting "special needs" broadly.

Ms. Callaghan says the exception was meant only for extraordinary cases and is being abused.

"We did not intend to let school districts throughout California drive their whole old bilingual program right through that waiver," she says.

It is difficult to gauge the statewide scope of waiver requests because many schools haven't been in session 30 days yet. Some districts report few requests, while others have rates of 50 percent and higher.

Yet to be fully assessed is Los Angeles, the biggest district and home to 100,000 students who don't speak English. The district reports waiver requests for 1,400 of 22,000 limited-English speakers who began year-round classes Aug. 3, but has yet to report the waiver response from schools that started in September.

Some view the waiver requests as a de facto victory for Hispanics, who voted 2-1 against 227 but were overwhelmed by the largely white electorate. Although bilingual education had been provided in about 20 languages, 80 percent of youngsters in the program spoke Spanish as their first language.

"It's the old case of people voting with their feet and in this case they're voting with their waivers," says Harry Patron, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Southern California think tank.

But proposition proponents assert that parents are being pressured with scare tactics and say they'll sue to stop the wholesale granting of waivers.

They point to the Los Angeles school district, where according to a story in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, officials are refusing reading lessons to children until their English is fluent, which could take two years.

And they provide a program description from another southern California district, Oxnard. It says kindergartners in English immersion will get no reading/writing readiness preparation but kids in bilingual education will get daily instruction until they are "fluent in English speaking, reading and writing."

Oxnard interim Superintendent Richard Duarte denies officials are trying to steer parents toward waivers.

"There's a certain level of fluency that's required before you learn to read," he says. "It's not a matter of scaring anyone. It's a matter of making an informed choice."

At Sherman Oaks, part of the 7,800-pupil Campbell Union district just south of San Jose, the waiver process began one hot September afternoon when two dozen parents sat on orange plastic chairs and listened to their options: regular classes, English immersion for limited-English speakers or English-Spanish dual immersion.

White forms were provided to those interested in waivers. Some began filling in the forms on the spot.

Three weeks later, bilingual education resumed for Ms. Villarreal's pupils as they plunged into the mysteries of "las silabas" -- syllables.

A month before, Ms. Villarreal had struggled to hold the children's attention as she labored through an English book about a boy in frontier days. Now, hands shoot up from the youngsters sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor.

Mannerly pupils are rewarded with a smile and "Muy bien." The rambunctious are dismissed with a crisp, "A tu silla. Adios!" -- "Go to your seat. Goodbye!"

Six-year-old Edwin, who had hugged his skinny knees in silence through the first few days of mostly English instruction, was called up to the board to write the first syllable for the moon, la luna. He painstakingly prints the letters "l-u," pushing on the marker so hard it squeaks.

Bilingual education supporters say children like Edwin learn best when they start in their own language. Those on the other side say educational theorists are wasting children's time, holding them back while their English-schooled counterparts move forward.

Ms. Villarreal's students have little idea of the pedagogic warfare raging over their heads.

Five-year-old Jennifer smiles shyly and answers "Espanol," when asked which language she prefers.

Her friend Tanya juts her little chin out and proudly declares, "I speak a lot of English."