Orange County Weekly

Friday, November 20, 1998

Choice of a New Generation

It's likely that Ron Unz, the northern California bazillionaire and co-author of Proposition 227, would have been pretty annoyed at last week's parents' meeting at Fremont Elementary School in Santa Ana--if he could have understood what was being said. Santa Ana Unified School District Board president Nativo Lopez conducted the meeting en espanol with the 100 or so parents seated at the lunch tables in Fremont's drafty cafeteria. He had visited the school, as he will about 20 others in coming weeks, to inform parents of the district's plan for implementation of Unz's English for the Children Initiative, which was passed by voters last June and seeks to say adios to bilingual education for good.

But as it turns out, thanks to a very magnanimous interpretation of the measure, Orange County's largest school district has plans for Prop. 227 that may include permitting a number of bilingual programs that some believed would be eliminated by the measure. Lopez has taken it upon himself to make sure that parents are aware that these programs may still be available.

According to the new law, Limited English Proficient (LEP) students under the age of 10 must complete their first 30 days of school in an English-language classroom, after which they can be placed into alternate courses of study if they exhibit "special physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs."

"We are going to implement the law completely, and that includes the right of parents to seek a waiver for their children and have them placed in alternative instructional programs. That would include bilingual education," Lopez said.

Parents in Santa Ana Unified have submitted more than 4,000 requests for waivers, a number far exceeding reported requests in other districts hit hard by Prop. 227, such as the Anaheim City School District. That has raised the suspicions of bilingual-education opponents that Lopez's school visits might be more political than informational.

It wouldn't take a translator to figure that Unz is steaming mad. He charges that Santa Ana's interpretation of the law is too broad, and he vowed, as Lopez put it in La Opinion last Sunday, "to be vigilant in observing the district to determine whether he would pursue legal action."

Santa Ana's superintendent, Al Mijares, however, countered that Unz is wrong when he suggests that Santa Ana is sidestepping the law. "We have scrupulously followed guidelines provided by the Orange County Department of Education and the State Board of Education," Mijares said. "And built right into Prop. 227 is the notion of parental choice. Parents still have the option. What we have simply done is to honor that option."

Lopez says honoring parents' right to choose means conducting meetings like the one last week at Fremont, a school of more than 1,100 students in which little more than half are LEP students. By late October, despite half a dozen parent meetings, the school had received only 15 requests for waivers--evidence, Lopez says, that parents have not been made fully aware of their options to seek a waiver or are being discouraged from doing so by bilingual-education opponents.

"I don't think the principals have done enough to apprise parents of their rights under this particular law," Lopez said. "I will personally be involved in meeting with parents at schools where we've observed a certain amount of resistance to assure--to my satisfaction and to the board's satisfaction--that the parents' rights are explained fully to them and to ascertain whether they have been coerced or influenced or persuaded not to seek a waiver."

Included on Lopez's list are schools like Taft Elementary, where Prop. 227 co-author Gloria Matta Tuchman has returned to her first-grade classroom after losing the race for state Superintendent of Public Instruction to incumbent Delaine Eastin. According to Lopez, the fact that Taft has nearly 400 LEP students and has held one informational meeting for parents makes him suspicious.

" Lopez is the board president," Mijares said, "and as such, he has a right to question operations here in the district and investigate the method of communication."

But there has been criticism that Lopez's methods as a prominent community leader coerces unsuspecting parents into requesting waivers. "He intimidates a lot of people he goes after," said board member Rosemarie Avila, the only member of the Santa Ana school board who supported Prop. 227. "Mr. Lopez is pushing the waivers and making sure that every parent is counseled about their right to waive. They talk to them and send them to a place where they can sign up for a waiver. So parents who don't know much about the system just think that's what they're supposed to do."

Given Avila's comments, you would have expected some sort of bilingual cattle call, complete with stacks of waivers and bank-style "biros on a string" at last week's Fremont meeting. Pero no! Lopez showed up a half-hour late and then matter-of-factly addressed parents, answered questions, and spent the end of the meeting discussing problems in the neighborhood with parents wanting to repair a fence around the perimeter of the school.

If this is the agenda that Unz claims will land Santa Ana Unified in a courtroom, then he gives Lopez far too much credit. The parents at Fremont weren't choosing waivers because of Lopez; they were choosing waivers because they can.