Contra Costa Times

Wednesday, April 29, 1998

Voters, Teachers Don't Speak the Same Language
Schools are confused about how they would comply with Prop. 227
By PAM KING, Times Staff Writer

If Proposition 227 passes on June 2, school officials will have a scant 60 days to develop the programs for English learners that are prescribed in the initiative and to scrap any existing bilingual education programs that don't comply.

The problem, many officials say, is that Prop. 227 is vague: The same language that makes it comprehensible and attractive to voters makes it distressing for school officials accustomed to specific prescriptions and regulations.

Teachers are especially confused. Even after reading Prop. 227 carefully, many say they cannot figure out whether the programs and methods they use today would be outlawed if voters approve the ballot measure. In recent polls, prospective voters have said they favor Prop. 227 by a 2-1 margin.

"This is not the way legislation is normally written," said Norm Gold, bilingual education coordinator at the state Department of Education. "Legislation says, 'Do this, don't do this' and gives explicit guidance. The initiative just sort of offers advice."

Prop. 227 requires that students be taught overwhelmingly in English. Children who enter school unable to speak English would spend one year in an intensive English immersion class and then would be moved into regular classes.

Opponents of Prop. 227 criticize the ballot measure because it mandates a single teaching model that limits local districts' control over which programs they offer. The legislative analyst in the secretary of state's office concurs that local programs would be replaced by a statewide model.

But the authors of Prop. 227, Ron Unz and Gloria Matta Tuchman, emphasize that the ballot measure allows parents to seek waivers from the state, enabling schools to develop programs that deviate from the mandated model.

Some districts believe that early planning is the best strategy to cope with the inevitable changes and are beginning to develop contingency plans in case Prop. 227 passes. The Mt. Diablo Unified School District, for example, is searching for a new way to assess its limited-English students so it can group them next fall according to their English language ability instead of by age and grade level.

"We're here to assist on contingency and implementation plans," said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for the Prop. 227 campaign. "We think it is very inadvisable to do nothing."

But that's precisely what the West Contra Costa Unified School District is doing.

"It would be foolhardy to make changes based on speculation," said Toni Oklan-Arko, West Contra Costa's coordinator of bilingual education. "We are not dismantling programs, especially when our program is subject to monitoring by the (U.S Department of Education's) Office of Civil Rights. Those rules don't change."

Many school districts have called the Office of Civil Rights to find out whether they would violate federal law if they were to comply with Prop. 227. Attorney Susan Spelletich said she reads them the federal guidelines but does not draw conclusions about the possible conflicts between those mandates and the ones in the initiative.

The fundamental difficulty, said Gold, California's bilingual coordinator, is that Prop. 227 places a time limit on providing services to English learners while federal law demands that schools help students until they have reached a specified level of proficiency.

"When you set a time limit that isn't based on student achievement, then you're in basic violation of Lau vs. Nichols," the Supreme Court case that required school districts to provide special services for students who don't speak English, Gold said.

"I think school districts should be asking their legal representatives for help. We don't second-guess legislative proposals or initiatives. All I can tell them is that as soon as there's a change in law -- either by the governor signing a bill or passage of the proposition -- we will get information into the field."

Annis, the Prop. 227 spokeswoman, discounts any conflicts between the ballot measure and federal law: "Our initiative follows federal constitutional law by offering every assistance to limited English students, and we don't expect it to be tied up in court."

Wayne Miller, who coordinates bilingual education for the Mt. Diablo school district, said teachers are skeptical that Prop. 227 will be implemented, if it passes.

"They cannot believe that this is honestly going to go into effect," he said. "It's just so different than everything we've always been told, from all the current state and federal guidelines."

The successful legal challenges to Proposition 187, the ballot measure that restricted services to illegal immigrants, have bolstered the position that Prop. 227 also will be tested in court. Even if Prop. 227 is upheld, the court fight would give school districts time to develop appropriate programs.

But then district officials come up against the issue of the initiative's vague language. Critics point out that even the Santa Ana program of Gloria Tuchman, the co-author of Prop. 227, might not comply with the initiative as written, because she uses Spanish in class and because students in her school receive special instruction and some native-language support for up to three years.

The ballot measure states, "English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year." In sheltered classes, nearly all classroom instruction is in English.

Tuchman acknowledges that hers is not a one-year program, but said her students could "easily" make the transition to English-only classrooms after one year if required. She also said that supplementary English as a Second Language assistance is necessary.

Ironically, Prop. 227 opponents give the ballot measure a much more narrow reading than Tuchman and other supporters. For one thing, it is politically shrewd to point out the most dire consequences in hopes of mobilizing more resistance.

But West County's Oklan-Arko and Mt. Diablo's Miller also say the English-only fervor of some Prop. 227 backers forces their districts and teachers into a defensive posture, because these people are more likely to demand that districts adhere to the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.

"We feel we would have to give it the strictest possible interpretation because the initiative encourages people to sue," Oklan-Arko said.

She and Miller believe the initiative would prohibit all supplemental instruction for English learners after the first year, pointing out that the ballot measure prescribes, "Once English learners have acquired a good working knowledge of English, they shall be transferred to English language mainstream classrooms."

Educators wonder about how to define "good working knowledge of English" and say fluent "playground English" is not the same as the "academic English" students need to do grade-level work in subjects such as social studies and science.

Strict interpreters of Prop. 227, such as Oklan-Arko and Miller, believe that supplementary English as a Second Language programs could not extend beyond one year. Even innovative dual-immersion programs, which teach Spanish to English-only students and English to Spanish-only students, could be at risk.

Annis, the Prop. 227 spokeswoman, said their interpretations are too narrow. She believes ESL programs could be continued, because they are conducted primarily in English. But she also believes the one-year immersion in intensive English would be so successful that students wouldn't need help after the first year.

As for dual-immersion, school-site officials believe those programs probably would be saved through the waiver process described in the initiative or might be protected by federal law since most are funded through federal grants.

"There's a lot of nebulous language," Miller said. "We're taking a wait-and-see attitude, not necessarily about whether it will pass, but whether there will be a successful injunction against it."

Pam King covers education and Prop. 227. You can reach her at 925-977-8406 or P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.