Los Angeles Times
Monday, May 4, 1998
Bilingual Teachers Say They Would Defy Prop. 227
Schools: Bracing for the initiative's expected passage, some
educators vow to keep speaking foreign languages in the classroom.
By CHRIS CHI, Times Staff Writer
With a month to go before voters decide the fate of bilingual education
in California public schools, Ventura County educators are bracing for
a sea change in the way students who speak little English are taught--and
some teachers have vowed to defy Proposition 227 by continuing to speak
foreign languages in the classroom.
there's going to be a lot of civil disobedience," said Carlos Pagan,
principal at Moorpark's Peach Hill Elementary School, where several teachers
have pledged defiance. "That is the nature of the teacher, to help
the student the best way he can. And if that means getting sued, they'll
take that risk."
227--also known as the Unz initiative because it is sponsored by Silicon
Valley software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz--would replace bilingual education
with English-language immersion and allow parents to sue teachers who repeatedly
disobey the new regulations.
The latest in
a series of populist state initiatives to target such long-standing liberal
government programs as affirmative action, Proposition 227 enjoys a commanding
lead in the polls. A Times Poll last month, for instance, found the measure
leading 63% to 24% among the state's registered voters. Among Latino voters,
50% favored it and 32% were opposed.
popularity reflects a consensus that bilingual education has failed to
teach students English, leaving generations of minority students ill equipped
to compete in the job market, proponents say.
is no difference between the system we call bilingual education and the
Jim Crow system of the 1940s and 1950s in the South that harmed blacks,"
said Steve Frank, a Simi Valley resident and government consultant spearheading
the local Proposition 227 campaign. Frank is scheduled to debate USC professor
and bilingual education proponent Stephen Krashen today at Cal Lutheran
University in Thousand Oaks.
227 would dismantle the various programs currently used to educate students
with limited English language ability. With certain exceptions, those students
would receive one year of English-immersion instruction, then go directly
into mainstream classes. Current state guidelines do not limit the length
of time students can remain in bilingual classes; most Ventura County school
districts aim to have students in English-language classrooms by fourth
or fifth grade.
has drawn fierce opposition from teachers, who say bilingual education
is the best way to teach English while ensuring that students keep pace
in math, social studies and other subjects. They also complain that the
initiative encroaches on local control by preventing districts from tailoring
their bilingual programs to fit their student populations.
in Moorpark, Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Paula and Ojai are among those that
have passed resolutions opposing Proposition 227.
In Ventura County,
25,000 students--94% of whom speak Spanish as their primary language--are
considered limited-English speakers. They are taught in a variety of ways:
About 50% get their first few years of instruction in their native language,
while 30% are taught in English-only classes, with special booster classes
to help them learn the new language faster. Most others attend regular
classes with no special attention.
the different approaches to bilingual education, teachers across the county
agree that passage of Proposition 227 would usher in a tumultuous period
of change and open numerous legal, educational and financial questions:
Just what legal risks do teachers face? Could the new initiative be struck
down in court? How much will it cost to buy new textbooks and train bilingual
teachers to retool their teaching methods?
Answers to these
questions could unfold quickly: If passed, the new regulations would take
effect two months later.
And while refusing to concede defeat, bilingual teachers across the county
are already planning for change.
Some Teachers Take Less Militant Stance
fervent opponents say they will not change at all. Some bilingual teachers
have already informed administrators that they will not revise their curricula
but instead continue to teach in foreign languages and face the consequences,
said Cliff Rodrigues, director of bilingual education for the county superintendent
position is, 'Oh, yeah, we'll do what the law tells us,' " Rodrigues
said. But, he added, "they're going to deliver the content in Spanish
and will not go exclusively English."
plan a less militant approach, saying they will give English immersion
a try. But, some teachers say, if a Spanish-speaking student grows visibly
frustrated while trying to grasp such concepts as addition and subtraction
because he or she cannot understand the English terms, the teachers will
speak to them in Spanish to push them along.
to have to" speak Spanish, said Jackie Pinson, a third-grade bilingual
teacher at Peach Hill Elementary School in Moorpark. "It's hard to
imagine how uncomfortable a student would be if he can't understand. You
have to communicate with them. That's why we're here."
a bilingual teacher at Oxnard's Marina West Elementary School, said she,
too, will revert to Spanish if necessary.
that I'm getting is that teachers are going to stretch and struggle,"
Polido said. "There isn't any organized effort, but teachers are going
to do whatever they can."
By defying Proposition
227, teachers would presumably face penalties from local school districts
charged with implementing the new regulations. School officials throughout
the county are just beginning to plan how enforcement will be carried out.
obey the law," said Joseph Spirito, superintendent of the Ventura
Unified School District. "But I won't go monitor the classrooms, just
as I don't go to see if the teachers are reading the Bible every day."
education officials will convene a committee this month, which among other
things will discuss issuing enforcement guidelines to school districts.
really uncertain legal landscape," said Allan Keown, a state Department
of Education attorney. "I can't really say" what the recommendations
A key clause
in Proposition 227, however, stipulates that parents can take charge of
enforcement by suing school boards, administrators and even teachers if
a student has been "denied the option of an English-language instructional
repeated use of foreign languages, even while trying to teach English,
could be found to constitute such a denial, legal experts say. Even parents
of English-speaking children could sue if a teacher addresses others in
another language, proponents say.
a law professor at UC Davis who has written a book on California ballot
initiatives, noted that the initiative would not subject teachers, administrators
and school districts to criminal charges.
Rather, if parents
claiming their child was improperly receiving bilingual instruction prevailed
in civil court, the court could require school officials to pay attorneys
fees. And if parents had to hire tutors or incur other expenses to make
sure their child learned English, a court could order school officials
to reimburse those costs. Proposition
227 specifies that punitive damages would not be awarded.
not going to get huge amounts of money for bringing these suits,"
Feeney said. "What you mostly would get is orders for school boards"
to implement English immersion.
Feeney noted that school boards would probably provide legal representation
to teachers, bilingual teachers say they still feel threatened by the legal
uncertainties and potential financial penalties.
"Do I have
to sign off my house, and be poor, just to do my job?" asked Pinson,
the Moorpark bilingual teacher.
Both sides of the debate view litigation over the initiative, if approved,
Indeed, in announcing
its opposition to Proposition 227 last week, Clinton administration officials
indicated lawsuits brought by the federal Office of Civil Rights are possible
if parents supportive of bilingual education file discrimination complaints.
going to try to get the courts to overturn the voters' wishes," said
Frank, the local Proposition 227 campaign chief. "They're going to
try to win in the courts, because they can't win in the court of public
Experts Divided on Legal Question
split as to what the outcome of such litigation would be. Feeney thinks
the initiative would withstand discrimination charges, in part because
evidence over which method is best for students--English immersion or bilingual
"There's nothing in here that on its face is blatant discrimination,"
But Erwin Chemerinsky,
a USC law professor, views a civil rights challenge as potentially strong,
saying a failure to provide bilingual education could be seen as blocking
equal access to education.
I think there'd be a 1st Amendment challenge," Chemerinsky added,
"simply because of the restriction on expression."
Yet even before
the issue reaches the courts, teachers say there will be immediate, pressing
In Oxnard and
Moorpark, for instance, administrators have already run estimates to figure
out how much it will cost to replace foreign-language textbooks. Oxnard
elementary school officials say costs could reach $600,000; Moorpark officials
say they could spend $70,000 on new English-language texts.
And though the
Unz initiative proposes the state spend $50 million annually on adult English-language
education, school officials complain there is no money earmarked for new
going to be a tremendous strain on the materials budget," says Ventura
County Supt. of Schools Charles Weis.
at Marina West Elementary School have already held several meetings with
Latino parents to inform them of a clause in the proposed law that would
allow them to pull their children from English classrooms and put them
back in bilingual classes. But parents would first have to take several
steps, including visiting the school and receiving paperwork describing
is, we really need to be prepared for the passage of the initiative, because
it enjoys such wide support," says Marina West Principal Peter Chapa,
one of the few county educators who will concede Proposition 227's popularity.
officials say they still have a month to make their case that the initiative
represents too radical a change and too much risk.
of people will be confused and impatient," says Rodrigues. "It
will be chaotic."
* * *
Proposition 227 proponent Steve Frank of Simi Valley and Stephen Krashen,
a USC professor and supporter of bilingual education, will debate the measure
from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. today at California Lutheran University's Preus-Brandt
Forum. Cal Lutheran is at 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For information,