San Diego Union-Tribune

Wednesday, September 9, 1998

Chapters to Go . . .

On Aug. 27, Judge Henry Needham of Alameda County Superior Court ruled that the state Board of Education must consider waiver petitions filed by local school districts for exceptions to the provisions of Proposition 227. Then on Sept. 4, Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction, beat the state board to the punch and issued waivers for dual immersion programs to continue at two schools in San Clemente.

The initiative passed by a 61 percent majority in the June 2 primary election, virtually banning bilingual education. Fourteen school districts have requested general waivers of the law to continue successful bilingual programs that were already in place, and 24 are petition exemptions for specific dual-language programs.

Cries of outrage were heard from Gloria Matta Tuchman, co-author of Proposition 227, who claims that waivers for alternative programs are an attempt to circumvent the provisions of the law that instruction must be "overwhelmingly" in English.

A Los Angeles Times article claimed that the Alameda County ruling itself was a defeat for the pro-Proposition 227 forces because it reopened debate over the effectiveness of bilingual education vs. English immersion, which proponents argue was a matter that had been forever, irrevocably resolved at the ballot box.

The vote on Proposition 227 was touted as an up or down on bilingual education, with proponents claiming a landslide victory. In fact, the ethnic breakdown of the vote told another story. According to a CNN/Los Angeles Times exit poll, Hispanics voters were 63 percent opposed to the measure. What these percentages actually represent is an almost even split of opinion. If we put ten typical California voters in a room together, six of them favor Proposition 227, four do not. If we put 10 average Hispanic voters in a room together, six oppose Proposition 227, the other four do not. This is hardly a consensus or a collective definition of purpose for mandating sweeping changes in the public schools.

Matters become even more complicated when the expectation that everyone will go along with the mandate doesn't materialize. Since the initiative process sets up a winner-takes-all result, the question becomes one of determining how much of a "bully" the majority is willing to become in order to force compliance by the minority. The more regulatory pressure needed to gain compliance, the greater becomes the political risk.

Proposition 227 is a test of the political will of conservative cultural ideologies in a time of growing numbers and influence of California's ethnic minorities. Although Proposition 227 has been framed as a shift in educational policy, it is a far-reaching law that hits at the core of deeply held cultural values and beliefs. We have only begun to see the conflict over Proposition 227.

Hispanics question whether they can trust an electoral system and a public school governance apparatus that seems not to want to share decision-making power with Hispanic teachers and educators with expertise in bilingual education. The legitimacy of rhetoric about commitment to high quality education and standards is called into question when parents whose children do not speak English are subjected to an onerous labyrinth of bureaucratic procedures in order to get the programs they believe to be effective.

Many parents are wondering why waivers, either individually or for the school district from the state board, are required to maintain effective educational programs they have already worked hard to establish on the local level. Concurrently, they are questioning whether the move to an English-only curriculum really represents an equally advantageous move from the status quo for English-speaking children and Hispanic children. This issue arises when dual-immersion programs for children to learn Spanish like the ones in Orange County are allowed to continue, while transitional bilingual education programs that benefit language minority students may be dismantled.

As real children with real concerns and real experiences where their native language is prohibited or restricted enter classrooms this fall, the results of Proposition 227 will be felt. The minority who opposed Proposition 227 is waiting to see how the implementation of this new policy plays out.

We will eventually know whether Proposition 227 is as beneficial or benign an initiative as its supporters would have us believe, or if it is a preliminary skirmish in an ongoing political battle over broader issues of language and culture. Although wishful thinking leads us to hope that a popular vote will settle difficult issues, the reality is that we Californians still have a long way to go in learning how to live with our diversity.

Jill Kerper Mora is assistant professor of teacher education at San Diego State University, where she prepares teachers for the California credential in cross-cultural language and academic development.