San Francisco Chronicle

Tuesday, April 28, 1998

Education Secretary Blasts Proposition 227
Riley calls proposed limits on bilingual programs `disaster'
By LOUIS FREEDBERG, Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Education Richard Riley yesterday unambiguously denounced Proposition 227, which would end most bilingual education programs in California, as a ``disaster,'' ``counterproductive'' and ``just plain wrong.''

The announcement ended a months-long debate within the administration over whether to publicly oppose the initiative, which the latest Field Poll shows is favored by 70 percent of likely voters.

``Proposition 227 may satisfy people's sense of frustration, but ultimately it is counterproductive to our common goal of making sure children learn English while making academic progress in other subjects as well,'' Riley said in a lengthy statement.

Governor Pete Wilson said he has not yet decided whether he favors the proposition, though he is ``strongly leaning that way.'' But in keeping with a long-standing feud with Clinton on a range of issues -- from affirmative action to immigration -- Wilson accused the president of meddling in what is purely a state issue.

``I frankly think he has no business, I think the U.S. Department of Education has no business,'' said Wilson, ``substituting his judgment for that of the people of California,'' where the federal government spends approximately $80 million annually on bilingual programs.

Despite Riley's language, the administration is trying to carve out a middle ground on the issue -- similar to its ``mend it, don't end it'' policy on affirmative action.

Administration officials acknowledged yesterday that some children remain in bilingual education classes longer than they should and said that ideally children should learn English in no more than three years. But Riley emphasized that the three-year time line is not a ``mandate'' or a ``command.''

``Some children may learn English in one year or two, and others may need three years or even more,'' he said. ``The focus should be on the individual needs of each child and not on some artificial and arbitrary time frame.''

By proposing a flexible approach, the administration is taking aim at a key element of Proposition 227, which requires children with limited English proficiency to be taught in special ``English immersion'' classes for one year before being transferred into regular classes.

``The one-year time limit and one-size-fits-all approach to learning English flies in the face of research that tells us that children learn in different ways and at different speeds,'' said Riley.

Administration officials said their legal analysts have studied the proposition and concluded that it would not violate civil rights laws, including the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Lau vs. Nichols ruling, which led to bilingual programs across the nation. In that case, brought by Chinese parents in San Francisco, the court ruled that school districts must take steps to ensure that students with limited proficiency in English can fully participate in the regular school program.

But Riley warned that actual implementation of the initiative could cause school districts to run afoul of federal law. ``The initiative will in all likelihood result in problems under federal civil rights laws,'' said Riley.

Education Undersecretary Marshall Smith, a former dean of the School of Education at Stanford University, said the administration will not propose any changes to bilingual education policy until next year, when Congress is expected to weigh in on the issue.

But he suggested that for now, the administration has rejected the notion of cutting off funds to California districts that do not provide full educational opportunities for immigrant children. ``You'd like to have teeth in laws; you'd like to hold communities accountable,`` he said. ``At the same time, you don't want to withdraw funds that are being used to support kids.''