Riverside Press-Enterprise

Saturday, July 25, 1998

Riverside Plan Irks Prop. 227's Unz

Ron Unz, father of Prop. 227, blasted the first detailed plan by an Inland area school district to teach limited-English proficient students as "simply illegal."

Riverside Unified School District officials propose to teach kindergartners and first graders with 60 percent English instruction and 40 percent Spanish. After that, the amount of English would increase each year until pupils learn entirely in English during fourth grade.

Unz said Friday that 60-percent English instruction blatantly skirts Prop. 227's call for English immersion with "nearly all" instruction in English.

" `Nearly all' cannot be in any way interpreted to be 60 percent," said Unz, a Palo Alto software entrepreneur. "There's no two ways about it."

But administrators in the district see it another way.

They say that Prop. 227 never defines immersion classes taught "nearly all" in English. Nor does it explain "overwhelmingly" English instruction specified for classrooms to which limited-English children would transfer. Also, the state Board of Education's Prop. 227 regulations -- designed to help schools interpret the initiative -- do not explain those terms.

"What we did is exactly what we're allowed to do under the regulations," said Georgia Hill, Riverside's assistant superintendent of instructional services. "We have overwhelming instruction in English even at kindergarten and first grade. As children move through, they will have more and more instruction in English."

Meanwhile, supporters of bilingual education asked a federal appeals court to block implementation of Prop. 227 until their case can be heard by the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Several groups representing parents and students filed a lawsuit the day after Prop. 227 was approved, arguing the measure violated federal laws that required schools to use appropriate educational steps to overcome language barriers. A federal judge, though, ruled July 15 that Prop. 227 did not violate federal law, prompting the appeal.

State education officials said districts are taking different approaches to Prop. 227. At a meeting this week in Downey, the Los Angeles County Office of Education told school officials that programs using as much as 49 percent of a native language would comply with Prop. 227.

State Department of Education administrators said there may be no answer to Unz's challenge.

Sonia Hernandez, the state's deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction said vagueness in the initiative and state guidelines means they cannot know if Riverside's policy, or that of other districts, complies with Prop. 227.

"I think it's going to be a matter of opinion," Hernandez said.

State officials monitoring districts for following Prop. 227 will not have time to "be counting minutes" of English instruction, she said. Hernandez said the only answer would sprout from the courts after a legal challenge, not through state monitoring.

"Ultimately, we just want to make sure kids are getting a whole lot more English," Hernandez said.

Riverside officials unveiled their proposal Thursday to the Riverside school board. During that meeting, principals, bilingual teachers and aides applauded what they called a workable plan that would not let English learners fall behind in school.

Prop. 227, approved by voters in June, goes into effect Aug. 2. Last week, a judge denied an order that would have blocked enforcement of the measure. Supporters of bilingual education have asked a federal appeals court to block enforcement of the law pending their appeal.

In Riverside, where 15 percent of its nearly 36,000 students speak little or no English, the plan would begin with year-round school schedules beginning Aug. 3. Riverside's former bilingual program began with two years of 20 percent English instruction and 80 percent Spanish. The switch to all-English came in sixth grade.

To Unz, it is crystal clear that 60 percent of English teaching is too low. "Nearly all" English instruction means 95 to 98 percent to him, he said. However, he said he did not specify the percentage because he wanted to keep the initiative flexible. He said Riverside Unified has gone too far and he may write a letter to the district.

Unz said Riverside's plan, which will be considered in the fall by the school board, would open the district to a lawsuit from parents of children learning English. Prop. 227 allows parents to sue any school official who "willfully and repeatedly refuses to implement" the initiative.

Also, Unz said he may consider "legal pressure on districts that do not follow the law." It is too early to know whether that would happen in this case, Unz said.

Meanwhile, Hill and Betsy Sample, director of English Learner Services, said Riverside will stand by its plan.