With the fall semester under way for California’s 1.4 million
limited-English-speaking schoolchildren, many are, for the first time,
in programs designed to quickly phase them out of bilingual education,
while others are in the same programs as before, oblivious to the court
battles around them.
Those in the former group — including students in the Los Angeles
Unified School District — are the subject of the state’s biggest
educational challenge: how to ensure that students classified as English
learners can learn the language without instruction in their native
tongues, as mandated by the 61 percent of voters who approved
Proposition 227 in June. Those in the latter — including students in
San Francisco and Oakland — face a kind of educational limbo as
districts seek out legal and technical ways to avoid much of the law’s
The measure, led to success by Silicon Valley software engineer Ron
Unz, encourages districts to place English learners of all ages into a
single class for one year of instruction taught overwhelmingly in
English only. After that time, students are to return to mainstream
Unz concedes that implementation of his initiative has been spotty.
“It seems to be a pretty mixed bag all around the state,” Unz said.
“Most schools say they’re implementing it…but we just don’t know.
“We’re monitoring the schools in a passive sense, and we’ve been
getting lots of calls from parents or teachers with school districts who
are violating terms of Prop.227,” he said. “A lot of this will be
self-policing if the district is violating the terms of the initiative.”
Unz said it is still too soon to make a decision on how to address
schools that violate the initiative, though the law makes it easier for
parents to sue educators who keep kids in bilingual education against
the parents’ wishes. “As we gather information, we’ll decide what action
to take or support.”
In Los Angeles, where some 200 of 668 public schools, began their fall
semester two weeks ago, the district is trying to comply with the law by
offering instruction only in English in all but bilingual classes, which
must be taught 70 to 80 percent in English. (Bilingual teachers can,
however, explain a concept in a child’s native language if they perceive
that the child does not understand the English-language explanation.)
The new approach affects the 46 percent of Los Angeles’ 681,000
schoolchildren who are classified as limited-English speaking. The
overwhelming majority of those kids — 92 percent — come from homes in
which Spanish is the major language used. Armenian ranks a distant
second at 1.53 percent. Korean comes in third at 1.21 percent (about 6.5
percent of the district’s children are Asian American.)
“What we’re doing now is really the flip side of what we were doing,”
explained Socorro Serrano, the district’s communication officer. “In our
bilingual classes before, about 80 percent of the time in the classroom
was using the home language, like Spanish for example, and 20 percent of
the time was spent using English.”
Over two to three years, English was used more often with the child’s
native language being used less and less. “Now, we just do the flip side
and teach children their core subjects in English and offer them
assistance in their native language,” Serrano says.
Prop. 227 provides for parental waivers after 30 days of instruction.
In Los Angeles, parents can seek to have their children moved either to
all-English classes or into classes using some bilingual instruction
after that time, and some year-round schools that began classes in
mid-August are fast approaching the first 30 days of school. Still, so
far the district has received little indication of whether it will be
deluged with requests.
“At this point right now we’re not being inundated, but we’ll be
waiting over the next few days,” Serrano said. “We’ll be sending out
e-mails to each of the schools and find out what’s going on. However, we
do not want to run contrary to the law…we don’t want to solicit and
tell parents to get their waivers in. We’re being conservative at this
Despite the district’s new approach, Castelar Elementary School in Los
Angeles Chinatown did not have to change existing programs that serve
700 of its 950 students to accommodate Prop. 227, according to Principal
Cheuk Choi. He explained that the school had offered English-only
classes as an alternative to its bilingual program before the
proposition came about.
“The basic change is that before 227, parents had a right to request
the alternative program, which is now similar to [English-only classes].
But now, if people want a bilingual program, they have to ask for it in
terms of a waiver,” he explained. Before opening this fall, Castelar
held informational meetings for largely Cantonese-speaking parents to
let them know of the law and their options.
“We have the same programs, but it is the parents’ [choice] right
now,” Choi said. “We can’t tell parents where their children should be.”
Not all districts are implementing the law. San Francisco Unified
claims it cannot legally do so, saying it must maintain its bilingual
programs to comply with the settlement reached in Lau vs. Nichols, the
landmark 1974 Supreme Court decision that set the stage for most of
today’s bilingual-ed programs, though the justices did not mandate such
In that case, justices sided with Chinese American parents who had
sued the district for not offering limited-English speaking students
equal access to educational programs. In its decision, the court found
that because the district had not provided special programs to help
limited-English speakers overcome their deficiency in that language, it
had failed to provide equal access to instruction. As part of a consent
decree settling the suit, the district agreed to provide those programs,
which evolved into a constellation of bilingual-ed approaches that today
serve about one-third of the district’s 61,000 students. Of all San
Francisco’s students, about 4 in 10 are of Asian descent.
Still, the district has made some minor changes to its programs for
limited-English speakers. While the actual offerings (which include
bilingual education and English-only instruction) remain the same, the
district has renamed them: basic bilingual education tracks, for
example, are now called “English Plus Programs.” Offered alongside
mainstream instruction, they still include a dual-language enrichment
track, in which classes are taught using English and the students’
primary language to help students become proficient in English and their
primary language; total and two-way immersion programs, where classes
are taught using English and another language so students can become
fluent in two languages; and intensive English programs, in which kids
are taught primarily in English.
As in Los Angeles, parents who want their children in bilingual
classes will need to apply for a waiver. “What is different is that
we’ll continue to offer all of our existing programs, but with the
parent’s consent,” said Anita Lau, program administrator of a language
academy. “English is still the crucial element of all of these
San Francisco, too, is relying on parental waivers, especially if its
legal arguments ultimately don’t wash. Although San Francisco
Superintendent Bill Rojas was initially defiant toward Prop. 227, the
district modified its approach after courts refused to block the law:
Instead of open defiance, San Francisco officials hope well publicized
opportunities for parental waivers preserve programs.
The opportunity to tell parents about the district’s offerings is, in
fact, one of the good things to come from Prop. 227, said Helen Joe-Lew,
a resource teacher at the language academy. “Parents think that teachers
are only teaching in Chinese or Spanish, that they’re not being taught
in English, and that’s not true.”
Across the bay, Oakland schools are also arguing that federal
compliance agreements mandate its existing programs.
“We have an obligation to our students, their parents and our
community to ensure that our English-language learners are offered
instruction that meets their needs,” said Oakland Superintendent Carole
Like many other districts, Oakland is relying on parental requests for
waivers to keep the classes going. This week, the district is mailing
letters to parents of nearly 18,000 limited-English students (out of
53,273 total), inviting them to a special meeting at which they can
select an instruction option. Said Quan: “We believe we can provide a
full range of English instruction.”
At least 30 districts (but not San Francisco) are seeking exemptions
from the state Board of Education after the judge ruled that such
requests must be heard. Last week, two Orange County schools became the
first to win exemptions for their programs, which teach students in both
Spanish and English.
“Under state law, [the board] is required to review the waiver request
and cannot use the excuse of ‘voter approved’ to deny the districts,”
said state Deputy Superintendent of Schools Henry Der. He added,
however, that while the state must consider waiving the bilingual
education ban, as educators from San Jose to Oakland to Berkeley have
requested, it can still say no. The board is to hear requests from six
districts, including those three, at its meeting today.
Unz, said the districts’ attempts to get waivers from Prop. 227 was
“There is no legal basis,” Unz said. “The California Constitution says
in the strongest terms that initiatives supersede all countervailing
statutes. It always takes precedence over other types of law.
“It can only be waived by individual parents…only parents can apply
for waivers; the school districts can’t.”
Not only Unz, but also many bilingual-education advocates are
skeptical about the districts’ chances.
“The board’s open hostility towards bilingual education and to
children suggests that it is highly unlikely that they will grant these
waivers,” said Theodore Wang of Chinese for Affirmative Action.
He said that as long as educators have the option of choosing among
several ways to teach English, including using a bilingual approach,
children should reach their ultimate goal of learning the language.
Educators “like to have choices…because kids are all different.”