Riverside Press-Enterprise

Sunday, May 24, 1998

If Bilingual Education Proposal Wins, Future Is Murky
By AMITA SHARMA, The Press-Enterprise

Rarely a day goes by now that Norm Gold does not get a call from an anxious school administrator with one burning question: How do we teach immigrant children English if Prop. 227 passes?

The answer they get is often less direct.

"School districts are urged to take steps to plan for implementation, and we are telling them to consult with county counsel and district lawyers for legal advice," said Gold, compliance division chief for the state Department of Education.

Despite that advice and polls that show overwhelming public support for the measure on the June 2 ballot that would severely restrict bilingual education, few Inland area districts have a plan to institute Prop. 227. In fact, most local districts have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

Bolstered by previous controversial ballot measures that have been passed by voters only to be overturned by the courts, they believe Prop. 227 is destined for a legal fight.

"There are a number of legal issues around Prop. 227 as there have been with other initiatives in the past," said Sandra Johnson, assistant superintendent of the Corona-Norco Unified School District. "So we're going to continue to provide the program we have. No one is at the point of having a plan. Everybody is waiting to see what is going to happen."

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund is studying the initiative for "potential legal challenges," according to staff attorney Joseph Jaramillo.

Prop. 227 would require that the state's 1.4 million, limited-English-speaking children be placed in English immersion classes for a year. After that, they would be transferred to regular classes.

Parents of students could opt for bilingual education under certain conditions.

Prop. 227, sponsored by Silicon

Valley businessman Ron Unz and teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, would also allot $50 million a year for 10 years to train adults to be English tutors.

Supporters of Prop. 227 argue that the current system of bilingual education, which focuses on primary language instruction, has failed children. Only 6.7 percent leave bilingual education classes for regular instruction each year. And they contend that schools have paid little attention to parents who want their children taught in English.

Opponents counter that the measure would deny districts local control over how they teach English. They also contend that one year of English immersion is not enough time for students to become proficient in the language.

If voters approve Prop. 227 and it goes unchallenged, school leaders predict a bumpy road ahead for teachers and students.

"Well, I think it's going to be a daunting task for most of us because a lot of it has to do with what we know about how children learn, people's philosophies and how long it takes children to learn English," said Benita Roberts, superintendent of the Jurupa Unified School District.

"I think there is going to be a great deal of confusion," Roberts said.

In spite of the uncertainty, the Perris School District is plunging ahead with plans to adapt to Prop. 227 just in case.

Training of teachers in English immersion techniques has already started. Superintendent Antonio Arredondo predicts that the district, where 42 percent of the 4,200 students are not fluent in English, also will have to buy new textbooks to replace bilingual education books that are in Spanish.

Arredondo worries that the cost of the book purchases and the teacher training will be a financial drain.

And despite the district's plans, he doubts it will be able to teach students English as Prop. 227 envisions.

But to Prop. 227 spokeswoman Sheri Annis there are no excuses not to be ready.

"We've been urging districts for the past year to draft contingency plans," Annis said. "At no point during the past year have we not enjoyed a 60 percent to 70 percent approval."

A Field Poll released May 5 showed that 71 percent of likely voters would support Prop. 227. Fifty-eight percent of Hispanics backed the measure. Larger majorities of blacks, whites and Asians supported it.

Surveys aside, Banning Unified School District Superintendent Gloria Johnston said she is waiting for the state Department of Education to put out an advisory on what direction to take on Prop. 227.

So far, little guidance has been forthcoming. That is because state education officials have been waiting to see what would happen to state Sen. Dede Alpert's bill, said Doug Stone, the department's communications director.

The bill would have allowed districts to design their own program to teach students with limited English skills. But Gov. Wilson vetoed the bill Monday and endorsed Prop. 227.

In the wake of the veto, Stone said his department will now move ahead and study how Prop. 227 "would be implemented as effectively and efficiently as possible."

"We're going to examine all the facets involved with this issue," Stone said.