San Jose Mercury News

Thursday, June 4, 1998

If Schools Flout Prop. 227, There Will Be a Backlash

The law says: Teach non-English-speaking students in special English immersion classes. Proposition 227, which passed with a 61 percent majority, goes into effect in 60 days.

School officials say: We can't comply with Proposition 227 when school starts in the fall, but we won't have to. It will be tied up in court for years. Or we'll get a waiver from the state board of education to continue bilingual education.

It's a high-risk gamble.

Wednesday, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco. To get an injunction, they must persuade U.S. District Judge Charles Legge, a Reagan appointee, that their lawsuit is likely to win on the merits. It's not. Ron Unz wrote his ``English for the Children'' initiative to fit federal rulings, which say schools may use a variety of methods, including English immersion, to help students with limited English skills get an education comparable to other students. Almost certainly, Proposition 227 is constitutional.

The judge might be persuaded that letting the law go into effect in 60 days would cause irreparable harm. But it's not a sure thing. He might want to know why school officials made no plans to implement English immersion in the seven months Proposition 227 was leading in the polls by 2-to-1 or more.

Some think the state Board of Education could nullify 227, which is now part of the education code. According to state law, the board ``shall'' waive the education code on request, unless there's reason to believe such a waiver would not meet students' needs, says attorney Celia Ruiz. She's representing San Jose Unified and several other districts that plan to seek waivers at the board's July meeting.

``We think we have a good case,'' says San Jose Unified Superintendent Linda Murray, who observes that bilingual education is part of the district's consent decree in a federal desegregation case. If the waiver is denied, San Jose Unified probably would join a lawsuit. The district has no plans to implement 227 in September.

The state board's legal counsel, Rae Belisle, doesn't believe the board has the authority to waive away the will of the voters. She reasons that the education board's waiver power comes from the Legislature, which can't change 227 without a two-thirds vote. So how could the Legislature give the state board power it doesn't possess?

Of course, nobody knows how the state board will see the issue. The board came out for local control in April, when it threw out the bilingual education mandate. But it's shown no suicidal tendencies. Nullifying a very popular initiative doesn't seem likely.

Ideally, California law would allow a range of choices, including high-quality bilingual education programs that show results.

Proposition 227 isn't ideal, but it is the law. It's time to think about how to make it work.

First, local school districts need clarification on what 227 means. The state board will issue guidelines that give districts maximum flexibility, Belisle predicts.

For example, the initiative says instruction must be ``overwhelmingly'' in English. Unz says teachers could use another language for 20 to 30 percent of the day. The board should adopt Unz's definition, making it possible to offer extra help in students' native language or to teach a foreign language to a class that includes students who aren't fluent in English.

Opponents of 227 claim it requires students to be mainstreamed after a year of special immersion classes, with no additional help in learning English or other subjects.

State guidelines should take a sensible interpretation, letting schools mainstream students when they're ready, and provide whatever extra help is needed.

The state board has jurisdiction over parental waivers for children under 10 with ``special needs.'' (Waiver rules are looser for children 10 and older, but most bilingual education occurs in elementary school.)

The board should make it clear that ``special needs'' doesn't mean a child must be learning disabled, letting parents choose bilingual education if that's what they want.

The Legislature also could help by passing a special appropriation so districts can buy English-language books, and train teachers to teach reading, math, science and social studies to students who aren't fluent in English. All California teachers are supposed to be trained in these techniques in the next few years; 227 makes this a priority.

At the local level, administrators should have been surveying parents to estimate how many will request bilingual education; they may apply for a waiver after their children have spent 30 days in English immersion.

Under the law, if 20 students in the same grade at the same school request bilingual education they have a right to a class at that school; if fewer than 20 get waivers, they may transfer to another school.

Switching students after 30 days will be a major headache. It would be a lot easier if parents who plan to seek a waiver were encouraged to enroll their children at the same school or schools, which could be staffed with bilingual teachers.

Bilingual magnet schools -- most of them following the popular ``dual immersion'' model -- should apply for charter status, so they're exempt from the education code.

In covering this issue, I've been surprised that educators don't seem to know much about the alternatives to bilingual education used in Evergreen and Cupertino elementary districts. Both districts spent years developing English-language models. Both show excellent results. Educators must be open to learning from their experiences.

The same teachers and administrators who bitterly opposed 227 will be the ones who will have make English immersion work. Many sincerely believe it can't work, a belief that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Educators will have to put their personal feelings aside for the sake of their students. It will be very difficult, but there is no alternative.

Like Proposition 13, Proposition 227 is a voters' revolt against the elites, reflecting enormous frustration with the status quo. If schools are perceived to be flouting the will of the voters, the backlash will be disastrous.