San Diego Union-Tribune
Monday, December 22, 1997
THE BILINGUAL DEBATE
Law's Expiration Hasn't Hampered Enforcement
State can twist arms to win policy compliance.
By ED MENDEL, Staff
The opponents of bilingual education thought they drove a stake through
its heart in 1987, when former Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed an extension
of the program.
But the state Department of Education, citing special protection for school
programs, simply issued new policy guidelines and began a renewed push
to force school districts to offer bilingual education.
Few state programs have been enforced with greater vigor. The state sends
inspectors into local school districts, threatens to cut off funds to enforce
compliance, and continuously monitors districts such as San Diego Unified.
"The school districts are supposed to provide native language instruction,
and that's what we do," said Fred Tempes, director of the Department
of Education compliance unit.
Some school officials complained to the Little Hoover Commission, a state
watchdog agency, that the new guidelines issued by the department are more
stringent than the bilingual education law that expired a decade ago.
The Department of Education was accused of issuing what are known at the
Capitol as "underground" regulations -- rules that reflect the
views of bureaucrats in the state agencies, rather than the laws enacted
by elected officials.
But when the Little Hoover Commission asked the state Office of
Administrative Law for a ruling three years ago, the office ruled that
the Department of Education did not issue "underground" regulations.
It was an endorsement of the department's view that under special
protections for education programs, only the specific requirements in the
bilingual education law expired, not the "general or intended purposes"
of the law.
Now the opponents of bilingual education see new hope -- and supporters
a new threat -- in an initiative written by Silicon Valley businessman
Ron Unz, a Republican who ran for governor in 1994.
The initiative campaign says it has submitted about 750,000 signatures,
more than the 433,269 needed to qualify the measure for the June ballot.
A statewide Field Poll in November found the initiative favored by 69 percent
of voters and 66 percent of Latinos.
The initiative would impose a new state program for the growing number
of young students who do not speak English. The bilingual programs in which
teachers speak to the students mainly in their native languages for up
to seven years would be eliminated, unless parents are granted a waiver.
Instead, teachers speaking mainly in English would quickly teach children
in a "sheltered English immersion" program, which supporters
say takes about a year to get the students ready for mainstream classes.
Getting local districts to follow the state's bilingual education policy
has not been an easy task. Three years ago, the state twisted the arm of
the Stockton Unified School District, withholding $3 million in funds until
the district agreed to comply.
More than half of the Stockton students classified by the state as "limited
English proficient" (LEP) spoke Asian languages for which there are
few certified teachers. Stockton officials tried to set up an immersion
program, but did not apply for the necessary waiver from the state.
"Basically, they are doing a good job now," said Tempes, the
compliance director. "They are pleased. We are pleased, and we are
Currently, the state is threatening to withhold $4 million from the Oakland
Unified School District. Critics say the district has not hired enough
bilingual education teachers who speak Spanish or one of several Asian
But black parents in Oakland have complained that their children are not
getting what they need in the classroom, while extra resources go to immigrant
children who speak foreign languages. Last year, the district briefly considered
making black dialect, called ebonics, eligible for bilingual funding.
San Diego Unified is what has become known as a "Comite" district,
one of about 30 districts selected by the state for continuous monitoring
of their bilingual education programs under a state court order.
Several Latino groups, including Comite de Padres de Familia in Contra
Costa County, filed a lawsuit contending that school districts were not
complying with the bilingual education law. The Latino groups said problems
found during inspections, now conducted once every four years, were not
being corrected by the districts.
"I think their view was hold their feet to the fire and make them
squirm," said Tempes. "Our view was more of a technical compliance."
At San Diego Unified, about 39,000 students (29 percent of the total of
133,000) are classified as having limited English, speaking 50 different
languages. Two-thirds of the LEP students speak Spanish, and the rest speak
mainly various Asian and African languages.
Nearly all the bilingual education programs offered by San Diego Unified
are in Spanish, said Tim Allen, the district's director of second language
education. Most of the instruction for students speaking other languages
is through immersion or specially designed programs.
Three years ago, state inspectors found that San Diego Unified was out
of compliance with the bilingual education law in more than a dozen areas.
Since then the district has added extra staff, improved training and stepped
up monitoring of schools.
A new compliance agreement with the state was due last July. But the district
requested a delay while correcting problems in its special
education program. Allen said a new agreement is in the works.
"If we do well this year, we may even get to the point where we can
graduate from this status -- not because it's bad, but because it's better
to do things feeling you are not under some kind of agreement," said
A local-control plan stalls
In 1993, the Little Hoover Commission recommended that the state lift
the heavy hand of state regulation by giving local school districts more
flexibility in the education of students with limited English.
The commission's view is reflected in legislation by state Sen. Dede
Alpert, D-Coronado, and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos. The
bill passed the Senate this year, but stalled in the Assembly and will
be taken up again next year.
The legislation is opposed primarily by Latino legislators, who fear that
bilingual education would be weakened. On the other hand, the bill also
is opposed by Unz, who fears that bilingual education programs would be
left in place.
Unz said most bilingual education programs are operating in large urban
districts with strong support from local officials. He said many of the
state's LEP students are in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which
has 310,000 students with limited English.
"If the Alpert-Firestone bill passed, the result is that the overwhelming
majority of the children in these failed programs would remain there,"
The board of the Los Angeles Unified district voted unanimously to oppose
the Unz initiative. But the members of the teachers' union, the United
Teachers of Los Angeles, voted to oppose the initiative by a thin margin
of 52 percent to 48 percent.
Unz said another problem is that the local control granted by Alpert's
bill could result in endless political battles. He said bilingual education
might routinely become a heated issue in local school board elections,
particularly if only one or two seats held the balance of power.
But in Alpert's view, the potential dominance of school boards would be
dampened by a provision in the bill requiring parent advisory committees
to develop plans for educating students with limited English.
"Even at one school site, you could have multiple programs, depending
on what works best for kids," she said.
Alpert said Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante, D-Fresno, has told her the
bill will get a hearing after the Legislature returns next month. She has
talked during the interim with Bustamante's point man on the issue, Assemblyman
Mike Honda, D-San Jose.
"We are still working together," Alpert said. "We are still
Meanwhile, the state Board of Education is slowly giving school districts
more flexibility. The board, whose 11 members are appointed by Gov. Pete
Wilson, has begun granting school districts waivers from the bilingual
Waivers granted by the board in the past had only been for schools, often
because they could not find teachers qualified in the foreign language
spoken by their students.
Westminster School District in Orange County became the first district
in the state to receive a waiver. Bilingual education was replaced with
a sheltered immersion program, which uses bilingual aides to help teachers
who conduct lessons in English.
The board also has granted bilingual education waivers to three other Orange
County school districts: Orange Unified, Magnolia and Savanna.
A federal court declined to issue a restraining order sought by supporters
of bilingual education. Now a state court has been asked to decide whether
the board acted improperly when it issued waivers to the school districts.
The board has scheduled a general hearing on bilingual education on Feb.
9. Among other things, the board wants to give school districts that have
been complaining about heavy-handed state regulation a chance to air their
grievances in public.
"There have been people who have said the department, through its
own underground rules, has made them feel like they are stuck in a 1986
time warp," said Bill Lucia, the board executive director. "We
will see if districts are willing to stand up and say that."
Debate in different languages
How should California public schools handle the growing number of children
who do not speak English? The current policy favors bilingual education,
teaching students in their native languages for years as they learn English.
An initiative targeted for the June ballot would switch the policy to a
short course in English.
How the bilingual initiative works:
• Sheltered immersion - With some exceptions, all students in public
schools who do not speak English would be "taught English by being
taught in English," not their native languages. The "sheltered
English immersion program allows limited use of the native language in
the classroom and normally last no more than a year. Students
would be placed in mainstream classrooms when they have "acquired
a good working knowledge of English."
• Bilingual education - Most bilingual education programs are expected
to end. Parents could ask school officials for a waiver allowing their
child to be taught in the native language. But first the child would have
to be place in an immersion program for 30 days, and a "special need"
would have to be demonstrated. The initiative author, Ron Unz, says a bilingual
education program popular with parents could be continued through the waiver
• Other exemptions - children age 10 or older would not be placed in an
immersion program is school officials think an alternative such as
bilingual education would be better for them. Unz said there is evidence
that older children do not learn a new language as quickly as younger children.
The initiative would not affect immersion programs used to teach young
English-speaking children a second language, such as Spanish of French.
• Classrooms - Schools would be encouraged to put students who speak different
native languages in the same immersion classroom. To aid small schools,
students of different ages but with the same level of English proficiency
could be placed in the same classroom. If 20 or more students in a grade
receive waivers from immersion, the school must offer bilingual education
or an alternative. Otherwise, the student with waivers must transfer to
• English tutoring - Funding would be provided for adult English
instruction to parents or other community members who pledge to tutor school
children in English. The initiative appropriates $50 million a year for
10 years. The money would be distributed by local school boards under guidelines
from the state Board of Education.
• Lawsuits - If a child in denied instruction in English, the parent of
legal guardian could file a lawsuit to force a school to proved an
immersion program. The parent or guardian can be awarded attorney fees
and actual damages, but not punitive damages. School board members, administrators,
teachers and elected officials who "willfully and repeatedly"
refuse to comply with the initiative can be held personally liable for
attorney fees and actual damages.