San Jose Mercury News

Monday, February 2, 1998

Boards Oppose English Initiative
Bilingual education elimination is not solution, they say.
By S.L. WYKES, Mercury News Staff Writer

The school boards of the Bay Area's three largest districts have taken stands against the ``English for the Children'' initiative, signaling momentum to the growing opposition to the proposition among educators statewide.

The initiative would effectively eliminate bilingual education programs and mandate that most classroom instruction take place in English. It calls for non-English-speaking students to be enrolled in a much shorter, one-year English immersion program before being placed in English-only classrooms.

This approach, say the boards that have passed resolutions against the initiative, is just not good or proven educational technique. ``Anytime you try to fit everybody into a program like this, it's a recipe for disaster,'' said Sanda Spiegel, president of the board for Whisman Elementary School District in Mountain View. ``We know from some very solid research that academic fluency (in English) takes five to seven years.''

Votes opposing the initiative have been taken by the boards of the Bay Area's three largest districts -- San Jose Unified, San Francisco Unified and Oakland Unified -- as well as Santa Clara Unified and Whisman Elementary. Combined, those districts represent more than 160,000 of the state's schoolchildren.

In Southern California, the boards of Los Angeles Unified and Riverside have passed similar resolutions. Los Angeles Unified is the state's largest district with more than 667,000 students.

Mountain View Elementary and Redwood City Elementary probably will consider the issue soon.

Many of the votes were based on a model resolution against the initiative written by the California School Boards Association and adopted by the group last year. About 50 districts statewide so far have requested copies of the resolution.

The initiative, sponsored by Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz, would mandate that schools educate non-English-speaking students in a one-year English immersion program and then mainstream them into English-only classes. If parents wanted a different type of instruction, they would have to apply for a waiver.

While some school officials acknowledge room for improvement in current bilingual education programs, many oppose the initiative's prescription.

``I would not argue that there aren't some horror stories (about bilingual education), and there are many ways we could make this program more successful than it is, but this is not the way to do it,'' Spiegel said.

The California School Boards Association developed the model anti-initiative resolution after doing an analysis of the initiative last year. Its policy position, approved in June, faults the initiative on several fronts -- its ``one size fits all'' instructional form, its complicated and lengthy process for appealing the English-only classes and the possible legal liability for board members if parents believe their children's instruction is failing.

The association's model resolution says that schools must ensure English-language learners achieve academic parity with their English-speaking counterparts. The best way to do that, the resolution says, is to teach students in their native language while teaching them English.

More generally, some school board members say, the initiative attacks a long-held premise that school districts should have local control over how they deliver on state-mandated standards.

``There are some very basic issues involved in this,'' said San Francisco Unified board President Carlota del Portillo, ``whether or not parents can decide the type of education they want for their children without the whole bureaucracy and hindrance this initiative puts into place.''

Whether a district is large or small, has many or few non-English-speaking students, the initiative's premise would affect them all, said Marilyn Rea, president of Santa Clara Unified School District's board. ``My feeling is opposition will come from everywhere because (the initiative) infringes on everybody,'' she said.

So far, emotions and polls have run high in support of the Unz initiative, which recently qualified to be on the June ballot. But del Portillo said she does not believe that the early support means victory.

Many boards will time their resolutions to be closer to the June vote, Rea said.

``Board members are the only people in the state of California who speak for the children of California with no vested interest,'' said Whisman's Spiegel. ``School administrators are paid by districts; the teachers have a union. Parents are not disinterested -- they are parents. . . . So it's important for us to make these stands, so people can say, `That's information we can use' . . . because it's going to be a tough fight.''

A spokeswoman for the Unz initiative campaign said she wasn't surprised to see opposition coming from large school districts that have high percentages of English learners.

``Not only are those districts receiving extra funds each year students stay in bilingual programs, but (these districts) have no reason to shake their system,'' spokeswoman Sheri Annis said. ``They have to worry about their jobs . . . and bilingual coordinators and they don't have to take into account the success of the students.''