Los Angeles Times
Thursday, October 8, 1998
Word Getting Out on Bilingual Class Waivers
Education: Exemptions to keep students out of English-only classes
are used overwhelmingly in some areas, and not at all in others.
By KATE FOLMAR,
Times Staff Writer
Although voters backed a June ballot initiative meant to end bilingual
education, nearly all parents in some Ventura County school districts are
using an exemption to keep their kids out of English-only classes.
In half a dozen school districts in the Ventura
and Oxnard area, between 60% and 95% of children who are not fluent in
English are filtering back into bilingual classrooms after a 30-day trial
run in a "sheltered English immersion" program mandated by Proposition
227. The monthlong period lapses for the last of Ventura County's school
districts this week.
But few parents have signed so-called "parental
exemption waivers" in Fillmore and Santa Paula, despite a substantial
population of students whose first language is not English. And none were
signed in Thousand Oaks and Oak Park, where virtually all students speak
For the first time, school districts this
year were forced to educate limited-English-speaking children--"nearly
all" in English. Approved by 61% of California voters in June, Proposition
227 was meant to all but eliminate native-language instruction.
State regulations, however, allow parents
to keep their child in bilingual classes if the youngster has "special
physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs that an alternate
[bilingual] course of educational study would be better suited to the child's
overall educational development."
As the 30-day period ends and school districts
around Ventura County begin tallying the number of parents opting to keep
bilingual classes, a pattern is emerging: parents have latched onto the
waivers by overwhelming margins in some districts and not at all in others.
Rio Supt. Yolanda Benitez said the dramatic
difference in sign-up rates may reflect differences in district philosophy.
"If you have a successful bilingual
program and your community and the school board have supported it, the
parents will continue to support that bilingual program" by signing
waivers, Benitez said.
But Sheri Annis of the pro-Proposition 227
group English for the Children said the difference more likely reflects
how hard school officials push parents to sign waivers.
"Some districts are really proselyting
in favor of waivers, getting teachers involved, calling parents at home,"
Indeed, districts in Ventura County took
very different approaches in recent weeks to notifying parents about the
Fillmore schools--where waiver rates were
low--told parents of the option with two letters. Other school districts
hosted many parent meetings to address the topic. In the Rio School District,
where many parents are migrant farm laborers, school officials even used
a bus to ferry them to schools to sign waivers.
No state or county agency is tracking how
many parents are signing waivers. But the high rates of exemption requests
have alarmed proponents of Proposition 227.
"The Oxnard Plain wins so far for the
most waivers requested and, possibly, granted," Annis said.
Apart from districts that Annis says are
ignoring the law, "No district we know of in California has anywhere
near the high percentage of waivers that we've seen within the Oxnard and
Ventura school districts," she said.
Annis, who contends legitimate waivers should
total no more than 2%, said districts with high waiver rates "are
going to have to face legal consequences." Under Proposition 227,
teachers and school district administrators can be held individually liable
for violations of the new law.
But local educators say they are following
both the letter of the law--as outlined in emergency regulations from the
State Board of Education--and its spirit by giving parents educational
"The state regulations say you must
grant the waivers unless you have specific evidence the program requested
by the parents would not be beneficial for the children," said Marcia
Turner, special projects director in the Ocean View School District. In
Turner's district, parents of 60% of limited-English-speaking children
have requested bilingual education.
Because state rules for implementing the
law are still evolving, officials with the California Department of Education
and the State Board of Education do not say definitively how many waivers
are too many. Both supporters and foes of the anti-bilingual education
initiative are asking the state board to clarify the issue.
Bill Lucia, executive director of the state
school board, said the question will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Officials most likely would initially look
at last year's standardized reading scores for children who speak little
or no English to gauge effectiveness of its bilingual programs, Lucia said.
He said those scores were "pathetic" for many Ventura County
school districts with high percentages of waivers.
While the numbers are not final in all school
districts, a decided trend toward waivers has emerged west of the Conejo
Grade. Many school districts still have 20 days to decide how many waivers
to actually approve.
In the Ventura Unified School District, bilingual
specialist Jennifer Robles anticipates 90% of children who enrolled in
bilingual classes last year will be in similar classes this year.
Backers of the initiative may have miscalculated
by advertising it as a matter of family choice, she said. "Parents
aren't choosing the same way the voters did."
In the Hueneme School District, Supt. Robert
Fraisse estimated between 90% and 95% of his district's 3,400 limited-English-speaking
children have been returned to bilingual classes after a month of English
By the beginning of this month, the rural
Rio School District received waivers signed for about 83% of its 1,083
children not fluent in English, Supt. Benitez said.
In the nearby Oxnard School District, waivers
have been signed for about 63% of 7,000 limited-English-speaking children,
according to Stephanie Purdy, manager of English-language development.
At Cesar Chavez Elementary in Oxnard, nearly
all parents decided to keep their children in bilingual classes after the
youngsters struggled through the first 30 days of instruction in English.
Parent Margot Arellano said her 6-year-old
son, Alexis, pleaded with her to sign the waiver.
During the 30 days of sheltered English immersion,
Alexis was miserable, she said. Arellano said she and her husband felt
powerless to help their son because they do not speak English.
"He would come home with stomachaches
and crying because he couldn't understand what was going on," she
said in Spanish. "Now he no longer cries because he can do the work
in Spanish and English. He is better able to sleep at night because he
isn't worrying about the consequences of not finishing his homework."
The situation is reversed farther up the
Santa Clara River Valley in Santa Paula and Fillmore, where both districts
are reporting virtually no waiver requests despite sizable percentages
of children not fluent in English, officials say. Similarly, the Pleasant
Valley School District has received waiver requests from fewer than 10%
of children whose first language is not English.
Figures are not yet available for schools
in Simi Valley, Moorpark and some smaller districts.