Bakersfield Californian

Saturday, July 11, 1998

Districts Faced with Catch-227
By WENDY OWEN, Californian Staff Writer

Twenty days from now, bilingual education is supposed to cease in public schools across California.

But Kern High School District doesn't plan to follow the requirements of Proposition 227, preferring to abide by federal civil rights laws instead.

"The curriculum must fit the students you're teaching," said Rod Lancaster, KHSD director of special projects.

That's federal law, Lancaster said, and "federal law supersedes state law."

Proposition 227, approved by voters in June, officially ends bilingual education Aug. 2. The measure passed by a wide margin in Kern County.

When school starts Aug. 31, students struggling to master English will no longer sit in classrooms where teachers use their native language to instruct them.

Proposition 227 requires students be placed in English "immersion" classes, which means the teacher must use English "nearly all of the time" to instruct students.

The students will stay in the program for one year and then move into regular classrooms unless further training is necessary, which several educators said is likely.

KHSD signed an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights two years ago promising it would abide by federal law, Lancaster said. The Civil Rights' office reviewed the district's program in January and found it to be "sound."

"I feel very good about what we're doing," Lancaster said.

Violating the federal law might bring the government in to help run the district, he said.

Violating Proposition 227 could result in a lawsuit by parents, according to Article 5 of the measure.

Most other districts signed a similar form with the civil rights office, but they're preparing to follow Proposition 227 requirements.

"The (attorneys) say we're in trouble either way," said Don Gill, Bakersfield City School District assistant superintendent.

"If the district implements 227, it is in direct conflict with the (civil rights) agreement," he said. "Either course of action could produce litigation."

But Bakersfield City and other school districts with bilingual programs are following the advice of attorneys and preparing for 227.

Action by the Office of Civil Rights, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education, is yet unknown, said Rodger Murphey, a spokesman for the Department of Education.

But Secretary of Education Richard Riley said in April that Proposition 227 will likely "result in problems" under civil rights laws and may violate the Equal Educational Opportunity Act. The law requires schools to overcome language barriers that impede student participation in the classroom.

The agency is awaiting a court decision on Proposition 227 before moving forward, Murphey said.

A federal court in San Francisco will hear arguments Wednesday as to whether an injunction on the initiative should be lifted. Districts are expected to make final decisions on which road to follow at that time.

"We're not going to dismantle our entire bilingual program until we hear the outcome of the court case," Gill said.

Others are also waiting, but are preparing just in case.

Greenfield Union School District may have to eliminate a bilingual program for its students in kindergarten through second grade that showed great promise, said Carolyn Martin, Greenfield assistant superintendent.

The program worked with young students and taught them their daily lessons in Spanish before introducing English, Martin said.

"We were really seeing the difference," she said. "Now, we'll just do the whole thing in English."

Those were the only bilingual classes in Greenfield District, which serves about 5,600 students. A tenth of those, about 560, are not fluent in English.

Like many districts, Greenfield had a waiver from the state that relieved it of its duty to provide a bilingual program because it couldn't find enough Spanish-speaking teachers to meet its needs.

About one-third of students in bilingual programs across the state received classroom instruction in their native language, said David Dolson, bilingual specialist with the California Department of Education.

Because of that, the impact from the initiative is expected to hit the children harder than the district, Martin said.

Kern High School District also has a waiver, muting its seemingly rebellious plan against following 227 because the district doesn't have a bilingual program in place.

It was given a waiver because it offers an alternative program for students struggling with English. Also, it couldn't find enough bilingual teachers to offer such classes.

The district places its non-fluent English students in classes specially designed for them, but they're taught in English. A bilingual aide helps in the classroom.

The aides are the problem, Lancaster said, since he believes using them violates 227. The district legal service, however, says they're OK.

Therein lies the problem with the proposition, according to educators.

"It's full of holes," Gill said.

The initiative is vague in many areas, said educators, who are leaving its interpretation in the hands of attorneys.

They received a boost in their efforts Thursday when the state Board of Education approved temporary regulations giving districts flexibility in their interpretation of 227, according to The Associated Press.

Schools Legal Service, a branch of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, offers an interpretation of the proposition on its Web site,

Among the issues is whether people other than the teacher can assist the students in the classroom using another language. The legal service concluded that it's OK as long as the teacher used English to instruct the students in class.

Terms such as "nearly all" classroom instruction in English are also hard to define, according to the legal service.

The use of bilingual classroom materials is under review, as are the requirements for parents to obtain waivers to place their students in bilingual classes.

The proposition requires waivers for 20 children at the same grade level before a bilingual class is opened.

Schools Legal Service interprets it to also say that the proposition doesn't prohibit districts from providing such classes for fewer than 20 students.

More clarifications are expected as the proposition nears enactment. Meanwhile, districts continue to wait on the sidelines.