San Jose Mercury News
Monday, May 18, 1998
Prop. 227 Foes See Charter School Loophole
Hoping to save their bilingual programs from the expected victory of Proposition 227, some California schools are eyeing the ballot measure's biggest and perhaps most radical loophole: charter schools.
The fact that charter schools are exempt from the state Education Code -- and therefore would not be affected by Proposition 227 -- has caught the attention of a handful of educators, who want the freedom to continue instructing their students at least partially in their native language.
A bilingual elementary school in Southern California already is drafting a charter school proposal to take to its local school board.
A statewide networking group for charter schools said it has received several inquiries from bilingual schools asking how to convert them into the independent public schools.
``The interest is certainly out there,'' said Susan Steelman Bragato, executive director of the California Network of Educational Charters in San Carlos.
Proposition 227 -- dubbed the ``Unz Initiative'' after its author Ron Unz -- would require nearly all public school instruction to be in English. The measure is aimed at eliminating programs where students are taught academic subjects in their home language -- usually Spanish -- while they learn English.
The June 2 measure enjoys strong popular support, attracting upward of 70 percent of likely voters in recent polls.
If it passes as expected, the initiative will take effect 60 days after the election. But many schools and districts are banking on it immediately getting bound up in court challenges, as did Propositions 187 and 209, initiatives that denied benefits to illegal immigrants and banned affirmative action in public hiring and education.
``We're feeling that even if it passes, it will be put on the back burner,'' said B.J. Mackle, deputy superintendent of the Cabrillo Unified School District in Half Moon Bay.
Other school district administrators and teachers have vowed to openly defy the initiative if it passes.
But some schools are acknowledging the possibility the measure might soon become part of the Education Code, forcing them to alter or eliminate their bilingual education programs.
The idea of converting to a charter school -- which is publicly funded but independently run -- has intrigued some educators.
Frank Ohnesorgen, the principal of Sparkman Elementary in Riverside County, said he intends to present his local school board with a charter school proposal at its June 2 meeting in an attempt to protect Sparkman's Spanish-English language immersion program.
``If it passes, I'm sure I will get more calls,'' she said.
That charter schools would not be affected by Proposition 227 is widely accepted as fact.
The state Legislature created charter schools in 1992, exempting them from most of the Education Code as one way to encourage educational innovation.
Because Proposition 227 would alter only the Education Code, and not the state Constitution, charter schools would not be bound by it, according to officials with the state Department of Education and the Legislative Analyst's Office.
``From my point of view, it's pretty clear,'' said Eric Premack, a charter schools expert with Institute for Education Reform in Sacramento. ``The laws says charter schools are exempt from laws that affect school districts. Most attorneys would say this has no effect.''
The authors of Proposition 227 could have inserted a clause in the measure making charter schools comply. But, Unz said, ``It's not something that we thought about.''
To convert Sparkman elementary to a charter, the principal will need to submit a petition to the local board signed by 50 percent of the teachers at a school, or 10 percent in the entire school district. If the board approves it and the state finds no technical problems, Sparkman would become an independent public school, free to make its own curriculum .
The Sparkman bilingual program, currently in two kindergarten classes, offers instruction in both Spanish and English with the goal of making students fluent in both languages. The classes are composed of a relatively even mix of English- and Spanish-speaking students.
``The teachers are supportive; the parents are supportive,'' said Ohnesorgen. ``They're going to keep this program alive no matter what Ron Unz or anyone else says.''
Charter proponents said they welcome the interest in their movement, particularly now that Gov. Pete Wilson has signed a law allowing for the creation of up to 100 more charter schools each year.
But educators who have worked with charter schools warned regular schools against making hasty conversions, noting the difficulties of operating an independent public school.
Premack pointed out that charter schools were created to improve student achievement, and that they must set and meet academic performance goals.
``I would be concerned if an awful lot of schools got into this thinking it would be an easy thing to do,'' Premack said. ``It's not an easy fix for them. We have an awful lot of charters designed to fulfill a dream rather than be a performance-based school, and these schools are paying the price for this now.''
The director of the Garfield Elementary Charter in Redwood City doubted whether most schools could put together an educationally sound program in just two or three months.
``I think the more charters the better,'' said Garfield director Maria Montoya Hohenstein, ``But I would think that unless people were thinking about it ahead of time and had built some consensus, it would be hard to do it quickly. There need to be a lot of conversations with parents, teachers and the community. It's a major reform, and it requires a major effort.''