San Jose Mercury News

Thursday, September 3, 1998

Waiver Requests Will Be Heard
Prop. 227: Schools aim to keep bilingual programs.
By MICHAEL BAZELEY, Mercury News Staff Writer

Several Bay Area school districts will get a chance to argue for preservation of their bilingual education programs before the state Board of Education next week.

The board has decided to consider requests from 16 California school districts -- including Palo Alto Unified, Fremont Unified and Ravenswood in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park -- that want a blanket waiver from the voter-approved initiative, Proposition 227. Passed by voters in June, the initiative requires ``nearly all'' public school instruction to be in English.

The board's decision follows an order issued last week by an Alameda County Superior Court judge in a lawsuit filed by the Berkeley, Hayward and Oakland school districts to get the state board to consider their waiver requests.

It was not clear last week, however, whether the board would review just the waivers of the three East Bay school districts that sued, or other districts as well.

Board attorney Rae Belisle said Wednesday that officials have concluded the court ruling applied to all districts that have filed waiver requests with state. More than 40 districts have now filed for waivers.

``I don't think you can differentiate between who the plaintiffs were and the other districts,'' Belisle said.

The board, which meets next Wednesday through Friday, is scheduled to take up the waivers on Friday. It plans to consider only those requests that have been processed by state Department of Education staff members. The remaining requests -- including one by Santa Cruz City Elementary -- will likely be reviewed at later meetings.

There is still a chance the board could decide on Thursday to appeal the court order, in which case the waiver requests would probably be postponed, said board executive director Bill Lucia.

But if that does not happen, districts will get a shot at convincing the board that their bilingual programs are worth saving.

Fremont Unified's superintendent, Sharon Jones, said she requested the waiver because graduates of the district's bilingual programs are outperforming its English-speaking kids.

Palo Alto officials are asking permission to keep their Spanish immersion program at Escondido Elementary. The magnet program, now in kindergarten through third grade, is designed to make both English- and non-English-speaking students fluent in two languages.

``We are fully implementing 227 otherwise,'' said Irv Rollins, assistant superintendent for student services. ``(But) the dual immersion is such a powerful model, we see kids performing in an incredible way. Our motivation is not to circumvent 227, but to provide an excellent program.''

San Jose Unified had also applied for a waiver. But officials decided it was not necessary because the district is under a federal court order to provide bilingual classes for its Spanish-speaking students.

State education department officials said they would recommend that ``at least some'' of the waivers be granted.

But whether the board goes along with the recommendations is another matter entirely.

Appointed by Republican governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, the board and its staff have been openly critical of California's bilingual education programs.

Nonetheless, Lucia said the board would try to evaluate the requests on a strictly legal -- not political or ideological -- basis.

``We're in the precarious position of being hit from the right or left (with lawsuits) on this,'' Lucia said. ``We want to make sure we're in good legal standing with the waivers.''

California law says the board ``shall approve any and all requests for waivers'' except when one of seven conditions exist. One of those conditions is if ``the educational needs of pupils are not adequately addressed.''

Board members said they would be looking closely at whether the bilingual programs are educationally sound.

``I will definitely be interested in the quality of the program that is put before me,'' board Vice President Robert Trigg said.

In addition to the waivers, the board is also scheduled to take public comment on permanent Proposition 227 regulations. The board adopted temporary emergency guidelines this summer that were intended to get school districts through the first few months of the school year. Those guidelines expire next month.

Lucia said the board will also finish writing its new policy for limited English proficient students. In March, the board scrapped its old bilingual education policy and administrative regulations, which required school districts to provide special help for students with limited English skills.