San Francisco Examiner

Tuesday, June 9, 1998

Superintendent as Jailbird
Bill Rojas says he prefers incarceration to enforcing Prop. 227, suggesting that students should defy the law whenever they want.

SOME THINGS bother us about the attitude of Bill Rojas, San Francisco's superintendent of schools, toward the passage of Proposition 227, which requires a radically new system for teaching non-English-speaking students in California.

We're disappointed by his vow to go to jail rather than implement the law, which was approved June 2 by 61 percent of California voters. It may be, as Rojas says, that the law is unconstitutional, but that is for others to determine.

We much prefer the attitude of the California Teachers Association. Although the union opposed the proposition, CTA President Lois Timson said flatly after the election that teachers must comply with the law.

Rojas' pledge of civil disobedience is probably a bit of hyperbole. We suspect he doesn't mean it, that he wouldn't go to jail if faced with the choice. So, some people might be tempted to excuse his remarks as political theater.

But there's a more sinister aspect to his announced intention to defy the law. Is this the kind of model we want for children? It isn't right for a top school official to say, in effect, "If you don't like the law, just don't obey it."

Schools are supposed to teach that, in a democracy, all of us must live by the rules and by the results of elections - even when our side loses. Those are important lessons. Otherwise, we all do our own thing and anarchy results.

Rojas undermines his own authority. If he flouts the law, how effective will he be at enforcing school rules?

This newspaper was strongly opposed to Prop. 227. In its attempt to teach students English faster and more effectively, the initiative puts a straitjacket on students, parents and teachers. We believe Prop. 227 could end up hurting the very people it proposes to help: the 1.4 million students in this state with limited English proficiency.

Civil rights groups have filed suit to stop enforcement of Prop. 227. That's their right under the democratic process. And it's Rojas' right to cheer them on.

But it's not his job to defy the law.

What he should do is develop contingency plans to make sure, should Prop. 227 be upheld in the courts, that San Francisco has the best English-immersion program in the state.

He should insist that parents who want bilingual instruction for their children get it, as permitted by Prop. 227.

He should demand that all students who "graduate" to mainstream English classes are proficient enough in the language to succeed. Prop. 227 does not, as its more wild-eyed opponents argued, mandate "one year and out" into the mainstream. One year is set as a goal, as the proposition's author, Ron Unz, acknowledges.

Rojas should also ensure that no teacher in English-immersion believes she or he will be incarcerated for uttering a word in a language other than English. Prop. 227 doesn't threaten that.

We like Bill Rojas' passion for education. Usually. But when it spills over into threats of civil disobedience, we think the superintendent has a choice: Obey the law or consider a new line of employment. It would be pretty tough to run the schools from a jail cell.