New York Times

Saturday, October 3, 1998

California Still Debates Bilingual Education

LOS ANGELES -- Bilingual education in California was supposed to be in a grave by now, essentially killed when residents voted last spring to end it.

The ballot initiative, supported by 61 percent of the voters, sought to replace 30 years of using Spanish and other foreign languages to help immigrant children in the state learn to read, write and speak English with a method that uses "nearly all" English instruction.

But more than a month into the current school term, bilingual education is clearly still breathing. The reasons are a subject of hot debate.

Supporters of the initiative, Proposition 227, assert that school districts and the education bureaucracy are resisting the will of the voters, taking advantage of loopholes to preserve a rejected method of teaching.

Critics of the proposition see the bumpy transition as a result of confusion, reluctance on the part of some parents and teachers to push children into instruction they are not ready for, and even basic logistical issues like the lack of textbooks.

What is clear is that the fight over Proposition 227 is not over yet.

Doug Stone, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said he had heard of no open defiance of the law and "when push came to shove, virtually all of the districts are complying."

Some do not agree with that assessment.

"A lot of people are trying to loosely interpret and undermine this law," said Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican and a critic of bilingual education. "The law says 'nearly all' should be taught in English. But many districts are using 40 percent Spanish and 60 percent English."

The law does not define what "nearly all" means, so there is much disagreement over what constitutes compliance.

Elena Soto-Chapa, the statewide education director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has gone to court seeking to block the initiative, said that how the hundreds of school districts across the state defined "nearly all" was "just all over the spectrum."

Ms. Soto-Chapa said some districts were using a 60-40 English-foreign language formula while others were using 70-30 or 80-20. "There's a lot of confusion," she said. "It's a very political, murky environment right now."

The Los Angeles United School District, with 681,505 students the second largest in the country behind New York City, offers two programs for pupils with limited English ability: Model A and Model B. In Model A, the classes are taught virtually all in English. In Model B, 65 percent to 70 percent of the classes are taught in English.

Alice Callaghan, one of the leading proponents of Proposition 227, said "L.A. is absolutely out of compliance."

The state Education Department has set up a study group to help districts implement the law.

"We realized that before June 2 and after June 2 there would be more questions than answers," Stone said, referring to the day the initiative was approved. "But that isn't a sign from heaven that school districts can thwart the law."

Out of the 5.5 million public school pupils in California, about 1.4 million have a limited understanding of English, but only 30 percent of them were enrolled in bilingual education programs last year. The rest were in classes in which teachers used nearly all English. There were not enough qualified teachers for bilingual classes.

Under Proposition 227, some parents are eligible to request that their children be retained in a bilingual program, and such waivers can be be granted by a school district under three circumstances: The child has a physical or psychological need to be in bilingual education, the child is over 10 years old or the child speaks English.

But the question of waivers is also the subject of intense and varied interpretation and debate. Before a waiver can be granted, a child must spend the first 30 days of school in a class taught primarily in English. That period has now expired for about 25,000 Los Angeles pupils with limited English skills who started the new year in late summer. Although many expected a wave of request for waivers, only about 1,300 have been sought so far, said Forrest Ross, director of language acquisition for the Los Angeles district.

Ms. Soto-Chapa said, "I think a lot of parents are taking a wait and see approach."

At the Logan Street School in Los Angeles, a few blocks from Dodger Stadium, parents of 250 of the 360 pupils eligible have asked for and received waivers. Those children are now in bilingual classes.

"We're not trying to circumvent the law," said Logan Street's principal, May Arakaki. "We're just giving the parents the options they and their children deserve and are entitled to."

Mrs. Arakaki and her staff have had to do some fancy juggling. Mrs. Arakaki had to move three children whose parents signed waivers into Helen Trevino's second-grade class, which is primarily bilingual, and move three others into an English-immersion class.

Still, Ms. Trevino has a class of nine bilingual pupils and six who are taught primarily in English, forcing her to go from table to table and tongue to tongue. Ideally, the class would be either all bilingual or virtually all English.

"I'm for bilingual education," Ms. Trevino said. "But the new law has passed and we have to deal with it."

In one twist, 39 of the nearly 1,000 schools districts in California -- including Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno and Oakland -- have requested waivers of some kind to teaching all classes primarily in English -- whether for individual schools or for entire districts.

But in August, the state Board of Education, whose 11 members are appointed by the governor, refused to consider the waiver requests, saying it did not have the authority to grant them to districts.

"The initiative was very clear about waivers," said Bill Lucia, executive director of the state school board. "And it doesn't say anything about districtwide waivers."

After the board refused to hear the requests, the districts of Oakland, Hayward and Berkeley took the board to court, demanding that it be forced to do so.

"We feel that bilingual education works and we feel that our community believes in bilingual education," said Sue Piper, a spokeswoman for the 53,000-pupil Oakland Unified School District. "That's not to say it's perfect. But our test scores show that the children who graduate from bilingual education do very well."

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Henry Needham ruled last month that the board had to hear the districts' waiter requests. The board appealed the decision and voted to postpone action on the requests pending the outcome of the appeal. That could be months, and in the meantime the districts are required to implement the proposition.

Wilson had urged the board to appeal Needham's decision, saying his decision "could potentially eviscerate Proposition 227."

Lucia said that some of the board members were also concerned that they might be sued by proponents of the proposition if they ruled on the waivers before the issue of the board's authority had been determined in the appeal.

"It could require individual board members to get lawyers," he said. "It's a serious matter. It's a question of losing your house."

The initiative says that teachers and administrators who implement the law improperly can be held liable.

"We're going to be suing soon," said Ms. Callaghan, a leading supporter of the proposition. "We won't let this go on much longer."

The threat of lawsuits has also had a chilling effect on teachers. Hundreds of teachers in Los Angeles signed a petition last spring pledging open rebellion if Proposition 227 passed. The teachers vowed to risk being sued and dismissed by continuing to use bilingual education methods in their classrooms. But so far, the rebellion has not materialized -- at least not openly.

"Open defiance would be dismissal, and that was made very clear to us," said Steve Zimmer a member of On Campus, the teachers' group that organized the pledge of resistance. "But you certainly still have defiance. It's just being done behind closed doors."

Zimmer said that some teachers were simply teaching how they had always taught immigrant children, using bilingual methods, while others who otherwise comply with the law were still using a lot of bilingual methods because they did not yet have the books and other materials necessary to put the proposition into effect.

"There aren't enough books," he said. "There are stories about fourth graders using kindergarten books."

Still, Zimmer said, the majority of teachers are doing their best to comply with the law.

"Even though we did the pledge," he said, "I can't in good conscience tell a teacher to let this fail so we can get rid of it. The efforts of teachers not to damage children is what is making this work at all."

But Ms. Callaghan said she received almost daily reports of widespread non-compliance by teachers and districts.

"Name me a district that is not defying the law," she said. "There will be less Spanish spoken, but that doesn't mean they will teach English immersion. The law required that bilingual education be replaced, not mended. It's going to be a very unfortunate year."

Yet at individual schools like Logan Street in Los Angeles, it is more a year of improvisation, of trying to accommodate and educate at the same time.

Gloria Rodriguez has two children at Logan, a daughter, Christina, 8, a third grader, and a son, Gabriel, 9, a fourth grader. Her daughter began school in bilingual classes but tested high enough to move into classes taught in English before Proposition 227 became the law.

Mrs. Rodriguez signed a waiver for her son.

"He's not ready yet," she said. "My daughter is doing very well, and I think it is because of bilingual education. When she goes to college, she wants to learn Japanese and French. That will be four languages she will know how to speak and write. Employers will love her."