San Jose Mercury News

Friday, September 25, 1998

English Limits Baffle Board
Gilroy trustees seek clarification.
By JACK FOLEY, Mercury News Staff Writer

Stung by the suggestion they've violated Proposition 227, Gilroy school trustees have ordered a legal opinion and scheduled a special meeting to help clarify the new law, which limits the use of bilingual education in California schools.

``Part of the problem with this whole issue is nobody seems to know what the regulations are,'' said Gilroy school board member Richard Rodriguez. ``We are getting so many different interpretations that it's very confusing to everybody, even the superintendents.

``The state Department of Education says one thing, the state Board of Education says something else. (State schools chief) Delaine Eastin's view is different and the county board of education gives us their interpretation. We are getting mixed messages.''

Last week, after some parents called Proposition 277 author Ron Unz's office to question Gilroy's policy of teaching non-English-speaking students 60 percent in English and 40 percent in Spanish, Unz told the Mercury News that percentage of English does not meet the requirements of his legislation.

In referring to how much English should be taught to non-English-speaking students in ``sheltered English immersion'' classes, the law uses the term ``nearly all.'' School officials are struggling to determine how to meet that requirement, which neither State Board of Education regulations nor the state Department of Education has defined. Moreover, Proposition 227 does not specify whether percentages can be used, or what they should be if used. Gilroy is not the only school district to adopt the 60-40 instruction ratio, and many educators believe the legality of such programs will ultimately be determined if and when they are challenged in court.

Rodriguez, an assistant principal at a San Jose elementary school who is in his eighth year on the school board, said that while he opposed Proposition 227 and still believes it's unfair to non-English-speakers, he believes Unz's analysis is accurate.

``Based on the way he wrote the initiative, I would have to say he is correct,'' Rodriguez said of the ratio issue.

Rodriguez and his six board colleagues unanimously adopted the 60-40 ratio in August. They believed it complied with the law because they were told by school administrators that classes for non-English-speaking students must be conducted ``overwhelmingly'' in English.

``Nearly all'' is the term the law uses to describe how much English must be used in immersion programs for non-English-speaking students. It uses the word ``overwhelmingly'' to describe how much English should be used in regular classes for English-speaking students.

Unz last week said that by ``nearly all'' he meant something more like 99 percent or 98 percent. But a legal analysis given schools by the county office of education suggests ``overwhelmingly'' and ``nearly all'' are ``substantially equivalent'' standards.

After learning of Unz's opinion of their program, school board members on Tuesday instructed the district's legal counsel to draft a written opinion on the matter by today. They will hold a special meeting on Tuesday to discuss that issue as well as the way the district has been processing waivers from English immersion classes requested by parents under the new law, according to school Trustee Jane Howard.

Both issues have prompted phone calls from parents to Unz's office and school trustees.

Rodriguez said he is not concerned about provisions of the new law that hold school board members and administrators personally liable if parents sue, saying such suits would have to demonstrate that officials exhibited blatant disregard for the law in implementing Proposition 227.

``I don't think anybody can hold us liable for having made a mistake,'' he said.