San Jose Mercury News

Thursday, July 16, 1998

The 227 Train

WHEN Little Nell was tied to the railroad tracks, with a freight train barreling toward her, Dudley Do-Right didn't take a "wait and see" attitude.

Unfortunately, Dudley Do-Nothing has been the role model for most school superintendents in the state. Instead of planning how to make Proposition 227 work for students, they've waited to see if the state board of education or the courts would let them continue bilingual education as usual.

On Wednesday, a federal judge refused to grant a preliminary injunction to block Proposition 227 from going into effect. U.S. District Judge Charles Legge said challengers are unlikely to win their lawsuit, which argues that educating children in English violates their constitutional rights and federal civil rights law.

Earlier this month, the state board of education rejected school districts' requests for blanket waivers of the law. Under 227, only parents can request waivers to transfer their children to bilingual classes.

That means that, ready or not, sheltered English immersion classes start in September, or at the next semester after Aug. 2 for year-round schools. Students who aren't proficient in English must be placed in special classes taught "overwhelmingly" in English with instruction tailored for non-fluent learners. Most districts aren't ready.

It's easy to follow the letter of the law. Tell teachers to teach in English. It will be difficult to do it well. Teachers need training in effective teaching techniques, and books for English learners. They need to know if they're supposed to teach only the English language, or, more sensibly, use the English language to teach the full curriculum.

Should immersion classes include students of different ages? Will aides who speak Spanish, Vietnamese and other languages be available? When should students be mainstreamed, and what sort of help should be offered to help them catch up with their fluent classmates?

The state board's guidelines let districts decide how to teach in English. The board also gave parents the right to move children to alternative classes; waiver requests can be denied only if there's "substantial evidence" that what parents want will harm the student.

We hope the state education department will reassure educators that 227 does not require English-only instruction. Proposition 227's author, Palo Alto entrepreneur Ron Unz, says it allows teaching in a different language for up to an hour a day, or 20 to 30 percent of class time. That allows considerable flexibility, and should be the standard.

Some districts still hope to delay compliance. San Jose Unified believes it can continue bilingual classes in Spanish because they're included in the court order settling a federal desegregation suit. Waiting for a judge's OK -- the hearing will be in August -- is a high-risk strategy.

Eight months ago, the first polls came out showing overwhelming support for Proposition 227. Now there's less than two months till the start of the new school year. It's past time to focus on educating students in English.

What's at risk is the quality of education for nearly one of four students in California. There will be no last-minute judicial rescue. Dudley has to do something. Quickly.