Los Angeles Times

Saturday, July 25, 1998

Battle Intensifies on Compliance With Prop. 227

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 mandate.
     "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. 3.
     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 regulations.
     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' native language.
     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."