Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, July 29, 1998
Proposition 227 Speaks the Language of Uncertainty
State Board of Education regulations give schools some guidance
on ending bilingual instruction. But the voter mandate still has inherent
loopholes and flexibility.
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writer
Businessman Ron K. Unz and his allies had at least two goals in mind
last year when they drafted Proposition 227: to end bilingual education
in California, and to ensure that the initiative would withstand a court
challenge if it won voter approval.
Those diverging aims produced a law with
some internal conflicts. There is no mistaking the sweeping mandate--"all
children in California public schools shall be taught English by being
taught in English." Just as apparent are several loopholes and points
of flexibility hedging that mandate.
Lawyers were arguing over Proposition 227
even before its triumph at the polls June 2. Now emergency regulations
have been adopted by the State Board of Education to give school districts
some guidance before implementation begins next week.
The regulations, which took effect last week
and are due to be revised after four months, were touted by the state board
as a solution that gives local educators and parents as much power as possible
over classroom decisions. Critics, though, say the board failed to clarify
the initiative's ambiguous provisions.
Following are questions and answers about
the regulations and the initiative based on interviews with educators,
legal experts and partisans on both sides.
Question: When exactly does the initiative
Answer: That depends on the courts and
on the school calendar. A federal judge earlier this month refused to block
the initiative from going forward. But opponents of the initiative who
sued for a restraining order have appealed that ruling to the U.S. 9th
Circuit Court of Appeals.
Unless the appellate court intervenes, schools
that run on a traditional schedule will have to put the initiative into
effect as soon as they open for the fall semester. Schools that run on
a year-round schedule--including many in the state's larger cities--must
enforce the initiative for all semesters that begin on Monday or afterward.
The Los Angeles Unified School District interprets that rule as meaning
that 47 of its schools must go forward on Monday.
Q: How long will children with limited
English skills get help learning English before they are moved into mainstream
A: Much was made during the campaign about
the initiative's call for a one-year English immersion program instead
of bilingual education. Critics said many students would be left to sink
or swim because few would become fluent in English in just one year. But
here's where the initiative hedged. It said that limited-English students
should get help through English immersion for a time "not normally
intended to exceed one year" and that they should be mainstreamed
after they had acquired a "good working knowledge" of English.
The emergency regulations say that students
can, in fact, stay longer than one year in English immersion classes, unless
their parents object. And they appear to grant local educators considerable
leeway to define a "good working knowledge" of the language.
So a student in one district with a high standard for fluency might stay
longer in an English immersion classroom than a student with equal abilities
in another district with a lower standard.
Q: Are there any guarantees that limited-English
students won't get left behind?
A: The regulations, in line with federal
court rulings, require school districts to continue to provide extra help
to such students until they have reached a level of proficiency skill on
a par with the average native English speaker in the district, and until
they have made up any ground lost in other subjects while they were learning
English. There is no time limit on such help.
Q: Will parents be told about their children's
A: The regulations explicitly say that parents
"must be provided" with a full description of the English immersion
program "and any alternative courses of study" the district would
Q: Can teachers use any language in the
classroom besides English?
A: Probably. The initiative does not
ban the use of other languages in a classroom. To have done so would have
invited a judge to block the law. Instead, it says that English immersion
classes must have "nearly all" instruction in English. The emergency
regulations do not elaborate on what that means. Many local educators are
crafting plans that include a fair amount of native language instruction
in a classroom, whether through aides or credentialed teachers.
Q: Is there any way to keep bilingual
education despite the initiative?
A: Yes. The initiative itself allows
parents to apply for waivers allowing their children to take bilingual
classes. But there are several caveats. Parents must apply annually, in
person, for the waivers. Students must fit into one of three categories:
those who already know English and whose parents want them to learn another
language; those who are 10 or older and are thought to need an alternative
program; or those who have documented "special physical, emotional,
psychological or educational needs." The new state regulations say
that school officials must have "substantial evidence" to the
contrary to turn down a waiver request; initiative supporters say that
the state board misinterpreted the law on that point.
Any school in which 20 or more students in
a given grade are granted waivers will be required to offer bilingual education.
Finally, the quasi-independent "charter"
schools are exempt from the initiative and from almost all of the state
education code. But they are a tiny fraction of the public school system--about
150 schools out of 8,000.
Q: Who will police the initiative?
A: The initiative did not put any state agency
in charge of enforcement. But it specified that dissatisfied parents could
sue a school board member, an administrator and even a teacher for "willfully
and repeatedly" breaking the law.