Education Week

Wednesday, August 5, 1998

Schools Gear Up As Bilingual Ed. Law Takes Effect

Next week will be a busy one at Belvedere Elementary School in East Los Angeles.

Nearly 500 of the multitrack school's 1,300 students will return to school, and administrators will have to carry out a new state law that calls for limited-English-proficient children to be taught in English-immersion programs, rather than bilingual education.

The school must inform the parents of its 1,000 LEP students of the impending changes--and the opportunity to seek a waiver to exempt their children from English immersion.

"This hasn't really hit our parents yet. But it will," said Wil Shandy, the assistant principal at the predominantly Hispanic school.

The law kicks in for school terms that begin after Aug. 2, and year-round schools, like Belvedere, will be among the first in California to translate Proposition 227 into the classroom. Other schools across the state's 1,000 districts open for business later this month, and observers say the coming school year will be filled with trial and error.

California voters approved the controversial ballot measure on June 2. And the state school board last month approved temporary regulations that, for the most part, leave to districts the task of interpreting the sometimes open-ended terms of the new law.

While many administrators say they welcome the flexibility to set up programs that they believe comply with the law, they also wonder whether such flexibility leaves them more vulnerable to legal challenges down the road.

Court Gives Green Light

School boards looking for more time to draw up their plans were blocked last month.

A federal district judge in San Francisco rejected a petition from civil rights groups seeking to block the law's implementation. The plaintiffs have appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

U.S. District Judge Charles A. Legge ruled July 15 that there is no constitutional right to bilingual education and that a denial of bilingual education on its face does not violate federal law.

The California law calls for LEP students to be taught in "sheltered" or "structured" English-immersion classrooms where "nearly all" instruction is in English, but curriculum presentation is designed for students learning English as a second language. In most cases, students will remain in such programs for no more than one year before moving into the mainstream, according to the law. Under some circumstances, parents can receive waivers to enable their children to continue in bilingual education, where they are taught at least partly in their native languages.

Supporters of bilingual education say the approach enables students to keep up academically while learning English. Critics say students in bilingual education do not learn English well or quickly.

In recent years, one-third of California's 1.4 million LEP students were enrolled in bilingual education programs.

Debating Language

The state school board deliberately drew its rules with broad strokes to grant districts maximum flexibility in carrying out the new law, said Bill Lucia, the board's executive director.

But Proposition 227 backers say the board may have overreached in the area of parent waivers, enabling districts to easily circumvent English immersion, said Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the "English for the Children" campaign that launched Proposition 227.

Against such an uncertain landscape, districts need to make their own best judgment about how to proceed, said Theresa Garcia, a policy analyst with the California School Boards Association.

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

"It's a legal and a political issue for boards to make a determination of what is 'overwhelmingly' or 'nearly all' in their community and what do they feel is adequate educationally," Ms. Garcia said. "Districts are really all over the place."

Observers say the stakes could be high because the law allows parents to sue teachers and school officials who "willfully and repeatedly" refuse to provide English instruction.

And Ms. Annis made clear last week that backers of the measure will be watching for districts that "stretch the law as far as possible and maybe break that rubber band."

Making Plans

The 681,000-student Los Angeles district, which educates 310,000 students with limited English proficiency--nearly a quarter of the state's total LEP population--plans to offer parents four options. Parents could choose to place their child in a mainstream all-English class, a bilingual class--which would require a waiver-- 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.

Lawyers for the state school board have determined that although the board generally has the power to waive parts of the state education code, the board could not offer districtwide exemptions from Proposition 227.

Charter schools, however, are exempt from much of the education code, including the provisions of Proposition 227, and observers point to such schools as a potential way to avoid the law's intent.

The Oakland, Berkeley, and Hayward school districts have filed a petition in a state court to try to force the state board to consider its waiver proposals. The districts are scheduled for a hearing in Alameda Superior Court late this month.

San Francisco officials say they will add an English-immersion option while continuing bilingual programs they say are required under a 1976 federal consent decree. The decree stems from the Lau v. Nichols case. In the landmark 1974 Supreme Court decision, the court said the schools must offer LEP students special help to grant them equal access to the curricula.

"It is important for you to know that our decision to continue our bilingual programs is not a defiant act against Proposition 227," Superintendent Waldemar Rojas said in a July 22 letter to parents and teachers.

But in Los Angeles, despite of his district's plan, Steve Zimmer said he is expecting chaos. The English-as-a-second-language teacher at Marshall Senior High School has organized teacher resistance to Proposition 227.

"There's no question that there will be noncompliance," he said. "Teaching is hard enough without all these restrictions."