Los Angeles Times
Saturday, July 25, 1998
Battle Intensifies on Compliance With Prop. 227
By NICK ANDERSON, LOUIS SAHAGUN, Times Staff
Weeks after voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227, a behind-the-scenes
battle is raging over the fine print of the anti-bilingual education initiative
and the rules that will put it into effect early next month.
At stake in the dispute is how many bilingual
education programs will survive in California's public school system, and
what form they could take, despite the goal of the pro-initiative campaign
to wipe them out.
Supporters of Proposition 227 charge that
emergency regulations filed this week in Sacramento and new implementation
plans in the Los Angeles Unified School District and elsewhere are watering
down--in some cases, violating--the new law's broad mandate to teach children
English by teaching them in English.
Educators--most of whom opposed Proposition
227 before it was approved on June 2--respond that they are simply trying
to comply with a vaguely worded law in a way that guarantees parent rights
and preserves "flexibility."
Now, every step taken by school districts
and the state is getting close legal scrutiny as the initiative moves from
the political stage into the classroom. Lawyers for Proposition 227 supporters
have cried foul in at least one instance over the state's apparent willingness
to give parents some help in applying for waivers to the English-immersion
"We're going to hold everybody's feet
to the fire," said Alice Callaghan, a key supporter of the initiative.
The intense maneuvering over rules, policies
and guidelines has emerged in the wake of a federal judge's decision July
15 to turn down civil rights groups that had sued to block the initiative
through a court order. The plaintiffs in the case have appealed.
But barring an 11th-hour intervention by
a higher court, the ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles A. Legge meant
that the initiative will start taking effect in California schools Aug.
The first large-scale case study of the initiative's
impact will begin that day in Los Angeles Unified when 47 schools enforce
it for the first time. By the end of August, district officials say, 214
schools will have Proposition 227 plans in place.
Across the state, thousands more schools
will be forced to comply when they open their doors in September.
In all last year, more than 400,000 students
statewide with limited English skills were formally taught at least part
of the time in their native language. That's about 30% of the 1.4 million
children classified as "limited English-proficient." For most,
the native language was Spanish.
Proposition 227, approved by a 61%-39% margin
at the polls, sought to end that practice by requiring students to be taught
"overwhelmingly" or for "nearly all" of a school day
in English, except under certain circumstances.
Now educators are trying to define those
circumstances. Critics say their definitions are far too generous.
One key issue is when parents will be allowed
to obtain exceptions to the English-immersion mandate. Opponents of the
initiative, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational
Fund, have vowed to promote waiver campaigns in neighborhoods that have
long had bilingual schools.
The new regulations, approved unanimously
by the State Board of Education, require all parent requests for waivers
to be granted unless a school's principal and other educational staff have
"substantial evidence" that a waiver would not be a good idea.
Kathryn Dronenburg, one member of the state
board who opposed the initiative before the election, said the regulations
are "faithful to what the majority of the people wanted."
But the text of the proposition says that
children must meet one of three conditions to qualify for a waiver: They
must already know English; they must be at least 10 years old and educators
must believe a program other than English immersion is warranted; or they
must have "special physical, emotional, psychological or educational
needs." Further, the initiative says that the "special needs"
must be written down and that "the existence of special needs shall
not compel issuance of a waiver."
Los Angeles Unified plans to make waiver
applications available at all schools from Day 1. Though officials say
they will not promote any particular teaching method, one administrator
said Friday that she anticipates that many parents will seek to preserve
their bilingual programs. And the regulations issued by Sacramento seem
to indicate they will be successful.
"When the state board gave us clarification
on waivers, we found it gave school sites the flexibility to have the educational
needs of students met in a basic bilingual program if parents want that,"
said Maria Ochoa, administrative coordinator for language acquisition programs
in the district. "I predict waiver requests will be mostly granted."
At least one other major district, Oakland
Unified, has also pledged a "proactive" policy to inoculate its
bilingual programs through waivers.
Lawyers representing the Proposition 227
campaign have protested the wording of the regulations, saying that they
wrongly create a "presumption" that waivers are to be granted.
Ron K. Unz, the chief sponsor of the initiative,
bluntly warned Friday that "the initiative is the law," not the
Callaghan said: "We may have to sue
everyone who is out of compliance. We are desperately trying to avoid that--not
because we don't have the money to do it. But we would rather not, because
we want to solve this before school starts, so kids can learn."
Aside from waivers, another key area of contention
is how often native languages other than English will be allowed into the
typical classroom. Los Angeles Unified, under a plan it has approved, would
allow limited-English students help in their native tongue from aides or
certified bilingual teachers. In Fresno Unified, school officials talk
about allowing as much as a third of a day's instruction to be in students'
Unz said that he wouldn't "quibble"
over details but that the initiative's requirement of teaching limited-English
students through English immersion was clear. Spending just 60% of a day
in English, he said, seems out of bounds. But "95%, 98%, anywhere
in the 90s, you could at least make a case."