Los Angeles Times

Saturday, August 8, 1998

'Gag Order' on Prop. 227 Appears to Be Softening
By LOUIS SAHAGUN, Times Staff Writer

A dozen teachers opposed to the state's new anti-bilingual education law gathered at a downtown elementary school Friday to protest a so-called gag order barring them from advising parents to seek exemptions from English immersion classes created under Proposition 227 guidelines.
     In fact, Los Angeles Unified School District officials already appeared to be relaxing their hard-line stance against teachers advising parents whether to seek such waivers.
     "I think the district has changed its mind about the gag order," said Steve Zimmer, a spokesman for On Campus, a loose-knit coalition of teachers who continue to support bilingual education, "because they know there will be significant parent outcry if there are any restrictions against teachers offering their professional advice."
     As it stands, the district offers parents four options for their children: mainstream classes, two English immersion programs known as Model A and Model B, or a waiver seeking to have them enrolled in traditional bilingual education.
     If a school receives 20 applications in any grade, it must provide a bilingual class or transport the students to another school that can accommodate their needs. However, students are required to remain in an English immersion program for 30 days before leaving.
     Until now, principals and teachers at the downtown Hoover Street School and other campuses throughout the district have carefully avoided promoting one option over another, even when asked by a parent to do so.
     No wonder. During a recent meeting with school principals, district Supt. Ruben Zacarias stood up and warned, "What is not proper for any of us to do is go out there are sell one model over another. That is wrong. That is unprofessional."
     Zacarias' warning--echoed by the teachers union--was characterized as a gag order by many teachers.
     On Friday, however, district officials were sending a new message: Teachers should feel free to express their professional opinions.
     Zacarias could not be reached for comment. But Howard Friedman, the district's assistant general counsel, put it this way: "I don't think it's advocacy for a teacher, given what they know about a student, to offer a professional opinion if asked."
     The district's apparent change of heart came as good news to Steve Allen, Hoover's bilingual coordinator, who had been offering his personal opinions on the matter to parents even before Friday's clarification.
     "I'm not out on a soapbox after work telling parents what they should be doing," he said. "But I can prove academically that bilingual education is better for some children. So if a parent asks me, 'Should I sign a waiver?' I tell them, 'If you want bilingual education, sign a waiver.' "
     At a news conference at Hoover--the largest elementary school in the district, with about 2,700 mostly Latino students with limited English skills--On Campus announced the start of an effort to remind parents of their right to opt out of English immersion programs. On Campus also reminded district officials of teachers' rights to express personal opinions and to organize around the issue of waivers on their own time off campus.
     "We will not have our 1st Amendment rights stripped away in the name of 'smooth implementation,' " Zimmer said.
     Standing nearby and nodding in agreement was Igancio Caldero, a 26-year-old baby-sitter with three children enrolled at Hoover.
     In an interview, she said, "Teachers must be allowed to speak their minds on this issue. They know what's going on in the classroom. We don't."
     But Alice Callaghan, a community activist in downtown Los Angeles who was a key supporter of the initiative, believes that On Campus and other grass-roots efforts to restore bilingual education in the 661-campus district are only complicating matters.
     "My concern is that this group is causing chaos and confusion among parents," she said, "by suggesting that all a parent need do is fill out some papers and they'll have the same bilingual program they had last year. Not so."
     "On Campus can take out an ad in the newspaper telling parents to file for waivers but it doesn't mean they'll get one," she said. "This issue is not going to be won in the streets. It'll be decided in a courtroom as the year goes forward."