Los Angeles Times
Thursday, June 4, 1998
Prop. 227 Foes Vow to Block It Despite Wide Vote Margin
Schools: Suit by civil rights groups aims to head off end to
bilingual education. Meanwhile, state officials rule out waivers sought
by eight districts.
By RICHARD LEE COLVIN, DOUG
SMITH, Times Education Writers
Undeterred by the large margin of victory for Proposition 227, opponents
of the ballot measure designed to dismantle bilingual education moved Wednesday
to block it in both the courts and the classroom.
Even as a coalition of civil rights groups
filed a federal court lawsuit, another hoped-for avenue of relief from
Proposition 227 was closed down when State Board of Education officials
said requests for exemptions from the law would be rejected.
Eight school districts--including those in
Oakland, Fresno and San Jose--have filed papers seeking a waiver from the
proposition's requirement that, after one year in English immersion programs,
most children must be taught almost entirely in English.
But the state school board's attorney has
advised it that it is powerless to grant those waivers. "We will be
strongly discouraging the board from looking at waivers at all," said
Bill Lucia, executive director of the board.
Meanwhile, as school administrators were
trying to sort out what it would take to comply with the law, which takes
effect in 60 days, as many as 1,500 Los Angeles teachers said they were
prepared to commit the equivalent of educational civil disobedience if
The initiative "forces us to be saboteurs,"
said Arturo Selva, a veteran first-grade teacher at Bridge Street School
in East Los Angeles. "The bottom line is, are we going to be here
for the children or not? Once you close your door, people who don't believe
in English-only are going to sabotage it."
Not all teachers opposed the initiative,
of course. In Los Angeles, for example, 48% of 20,000 teachers voted earlier
this year for a union resolution in favor of 227.
Doug Lasken, a fifth-grade teacher at Ramona
Avenue School in Los Angeles, who was among the measure's most vocal proponents,
said Wednesday the chaotic aftermath of the vote that some are predicting
can be avoided.
"It's unfortunate that we had to go
through the initiative process to get this," Lasken said. "But
it wouldn't have happened had anybody within the educational community--including
teachers unions and school districts--been capable of reforming this badly
Defendants in Suit
The state school board is named, along with
Gov. Pete Wilson and state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin,
as a defendant in the lawsuit filed by the Mexican-American Legal Defense
and Educational Fund, the National Council of la Raza, the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, the American Civil Liberties Union and groups representing
Asian Americans. It seeks an immediate injunction to block implementation
of the proposition, which would take effect in time for the start of school
The coalition filed its challenge in U.S.
District Court in San Francisco, claiming that the terms of the initiative
violate the civil rights of 1.4 million California children who are not
fluent in English.
The lawsuit will be heard by federal Judge
Charles A. Legge, a moderate Republican appointed to the bench in 1984
by President Ronald Reagan. It alleges that Proposition 227 violates federal
constitutional guarantees of equal protection as well as the Civil Rights
Act of 1964.
Eastin opposes the proposition but issued
a statement vowing to carry it out. State Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, who as
a candidate for governor opposed Proposition 227, will have to defend it
Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who
wrote the initiative and spent heavily to see it passed, said a team of
private lawyers, whom he declined to name, also is ready to defend the
lawsuit on a pro bono basis.
The proposition was opposed by President
Clinton, all four candidates for governor, the leaders of both the Republican
and Democratic parties and almost every education organization in the state.
Yet it still won big, with 61% of the votes
cast, making it one of the most popular contested initiatives in the state's
The proposition did particularly well among
Republican voters, 77% of whom backed it, according to a Times exit poll.
Only 47% of Democrats sided with the measure. It was opposed by voters
who considered themselves liberals, and by blacks and Latinos. But white
and Asian voters were in favor, as were older voters, the exit polling
"What it means is that the people of
California very strongly believe that children should be taught English
when they come to school, and that overcame the opposition," said
an ebullient Unz.
About 1.4 million of California's 5.6 million
school children are not fluent in English. About a third of them are taught
using their primary language to build conceptual knowledge in subjects
such as math and history while moving them toward fluency in English. But
some become stuck in such bilingual classes and never develop the linguistic
skills needed to succeed academically.
Unz said he was confident that the legal
challenges to Proposition 227 would be rebuffed and that "this marks
the beginning of the end of bilingual education in the United States."
On Wednesday, however, educators pondered
the massive changes that will be required to switch the state's educational
system to a new track. Everything from purchasing the proper textbooks--if
they are available--to retraining teachers must be tackled. Educators say
they are still figuring out how much explanation teachers can offer in
languages other than English.
"We have parent conferences in Spanish.
I send out a weekly bulletin in English and Spanish. Will I still be able
to do that ?" asked Gloria Gutierrez Delaney, principal of Pasadena's
Madison Elementary School.
San Francisco's Board of Education voted
unanimously Wednesday to continue bilingual programs and to join any legal
action to overturn the proposition. "It's an absurd measure which
has no educational basis and would set our students back 30 years,"
said board President Carlota del Portillo.
Carl Cohn, superintendent of the Long Beach
Unified School District, said he is adopting a wait-and-see posture but
intends to comply if the initiative passes judicial review.
"We recognize that the voters have sent
us, the educational establishment, a real clear message about the importance
of English," Cohn said.
Despite the 60-day deadline in the initiative,
Cohn said that implementing a change of such magnitude would require a
year. Training teachers and involving parents so they understand and support
the changes would be the most time-consuming, he said.
Proposition 227 allows parents to request
that their children receive bilingual instruction. It even allows schools
to recommend that students need more assistance before being transferred
into mainstream classes. But school districts will have to work out procedures
for making such decisions.
L.A. Contingency Plan
The Los Angeles Unified School District had
developed a contingency plan that contemplated such possibilities as busing
children whose parents want them in bilingual classes to new campuses,
transferring teachers who are untrained to teach children not fluent in
English and even adding a year of schooling to make up for the one year
during which students will be concentrating solely on learning in English.
But Supt. Ruben Zacarias issued a statement
directing staff members "not to change any procedures or methods of
instruction" until further notice.
Zacarias acknowledged the passionate pro-bilingual
feelings of many teachers, feelings that were on display at a news conference
at district headquarters by an ad hoc teachers group calling itself On
Organizer Steve Zimmer, who teaches English
as a second language at Marshall High School, said the organization has
1,500 pledges to defy the initiative from teachers in five districts. But
he said the organization does not assume that every teacher who signed
will commit civil disobedience.
Selva, the Bridge Street teacher, said he
thought the measure would have failed had there been more time to explain
its problems. Selva said he is now left to contemplate an uncertain future.
"227 will wipe me out completely . .
. I will be a casualty," he said.
Unlike the stereotype of bilingual classrooms,
Selva said, he uses as much English as possible, as soon as children understand
the concepts. That has made the students voracious readers, so much so
that as soon as they come back from recess they race to a big box of books
to sneak in a few sentences before Selva starts the next lesson.
A chubby math whiz named Steven is a case
in point, Selva said. For a visitor, he read fluently and with perfect
expression a story about a sea serpent and his daughter--first in English
and then in Spanish.
The reason, Selva said, is that he has taught
them using all the tools available, including their native tongue.
"If we have English only," he said,
"it's going to squash all this progress."
Times staff writers Peter Hong and Jim
Newton contributed to this story.