Los Angeles Times

Thursday, May 21, 1998

L.A. Teachers Group Pledges Defiance if Prop. 227 Passes
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writer

About 1,000 pro-bilingual education teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District have signed pledges to oppose or, if necessary, disobey Proposition 227 if the statewide initiative that would dismantle bilingual instruction is approved on June 2, a teachers group said Wednesday.
     The defiant announcement by the teacher group On Campus comes as some educators across the state begin to consider strategies to resist implementing the ballot measure, which holds a wide lead among voters in most public opinion polls.
     Two school districts have asked state education regulators for waivers from the terms of Proposition 227, hoping to continue classroom teaching in two languages. Some educators point to loopholes within the initiative that would allow parents to petition once a year for waivers, under limited circumstances.      Others suggest that applying for quasi-independent charter school status would be a way around an initiative that would become part of the state Education Code.
     And, as frequently happens with controversial California ballot measures, there are threats of lawsuits to tie up the measure in court.
Each of those strategies faces tough obstacles. Proponents of the initiative sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron K. Unz warn that it would be irresponsible for school officials to consider any action other than following the law.
     But the resistance movement reflects a growing urgency among educators as they realize that an initiative mandating a radical change in California's school system may well pass--and that it would take effect a mere 60 days after the election.
     The pledge signed by the group of Los Angeles Unified teachers states, in part: "I will continue to use and/or support the use of bilingual education as one program to meet the needs of students."
     That is a direct challenge to the proposition, which would require all-English or mostly English instruction throughout California public schools, with few exceptions.
     "We need to take a stand on behalf not only of our students and our parents, but also on behalf of the integrity of our profession," said Steve Zimmer, who teaches English as a second language at John Marshall High School and is spokesman for the group. "We're not going to roll over."
     Zimmer said opponents of Proposition 227 are by no means conceding the election. But he said that abandoning bilingual education "flies in the face of the unwritten oath of teaching, which is that when we have children in our classroom, we're going to use every resource available to help those children."
     On the whole, Los Angeles teachers are sharply divided over bilingual education, a poll conducted by the teachers union found. Many of the district's 32,000 teachers are deeply committed to it. Many are just as deeply opposed.      What the teachers, principals and senior administrators will do if Proposition 227 passes is critical because the 680,000-student district has more students with limited English skills--300,000--than any other school system in the state.
     There are about 1.4 million students in California public schools with limited English skills; they amount to a quarter of all enrollment. Nearly one-third of those students are in formal bilingual education programs.
     The Los Angeles school board is on record against the initiative. But Pat Spencer, a district spokesman, said teachers will be obligated to follow the law if the initiative passes and takes effect. The school board has not taken a vote on whether it would challenge the initiative in court.
     But Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the pro-227 campaign, known as English for the Children, said: "Once our initiative becomes law, it would certainly be unwise for teachers to resist. Teachers should work together to make sure that the programs are successful."
     Elsewhere, at least two school systems have petitioned the state for permission to avoid Proposition 227's anti-bilingual provisions if the measure passes.
     One is the San Mateo-Foster City School District, which is seeking to protect bilingual programs for its limited-English students and its "two-way immersion program"--teaching two languages to English- and Spanish-speaking students.      The other is Orange County's Saddleback Valley Unified School District, which also wants to protect a two-way program that serves nearly 400 students at Gates Elementary School in Lake Forest.
     "We think it's a wonderful program, a parent-choice program, producing kids who are fluent in both English and Spanish," said Peter A. Hartman, superintendent of Saddleback Valley Unified. "We think school districts should be able to offer a program like that."
     As for the possibility of obtaining waivers under the initiative itself--a process outlined in the text of Proposition 227--Hartman said legal experts have advised him such an effort would be difficult.
     State officials say they expect many more districts to make inquiries about waivers. The State Board of Education has the authority to grant waivers to portions of the Education Code. But the outlook for such waiver applications is not good, said education officials speaking on condition of anonymity.
     The officials said it is unlikely that state board members, or any other state officials, would want to flout a ballot measure popular with voters.
     Thomas A. Saenz, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that if the initiative succeeds, lawsuits will probably follow in federal or state courts. He said MALDEF is exploring possible legal action.
     "Really, the best way to get rid of this is at the polls," Saenz said. "No one wants to concede defeat."