Bilingual-education showdown

California board is considering modifications of Prop. 227 law

The state Board of Education is considering regulations that would alter how bilingual education programs are offered in California.

The proposed provisions would change some elements of Proposition 227, a ballot measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1998 that banned bilingual education programs in favor of English-only instruction.

The new regulations, which may be voted on in meetings next week, would give school principals and teachers the authority to recommend that limited-English students be placed in bilingual programs. Under Proposition 227, parents have that authority. Proposition 227 also requires that limited-English children spend the first six weeks of each school year in English-only classes. The proposed regulations would allow these students to attend the six-week English-only classes during just one school year, then, in the following years, go straight into bilingual programs.

An estimated 1.5 million — one in four — children in public schools in California speak little if any English. Before Proposition 227 was passed, these students were often taught in their native language, such as Spanish or Cantonese.

Ron Unz, author of Proposition 227, believes that board members have acquiesced to the state’s bilingual education advocates and that the regulations are an attempt to void parts of his voter-approved initiative.

“In effect, the proposed regulations would nullify some of the core provisions of 227 and restore a system of bilingual education California had prior to the passage of the initiative, and that’s very serious,” Unz said.

It is to be expected, Unz said, that bilingual educators will recommend children for bilingual programs. And, he said, immigrant parents will likely heed those recommendations.

“Bilingual education was always voluntary in theory — but mandatory in practice.”

John Mockler, executive director of the state board, said Unz is overreacting, and the regulations are nothing more than an attempt to clarify implementation of Proposition 227.

“They’re clarifying and focusing what’s standard practice now,” Mockler said. “If teachers do recommend that children be in bilingual programs, parents have the absolute right to decide. I realize that this is a very passionate issue. I think we’ve tried to stay in the middle.”

But advocates of bilingual education — who believe limited-English students benefit from native-language instruction — say the proposed regulations would usurp parents’ power to choose.

“The board’s intention is to let the school choose, rather than the parent,” said Mary Hernandez, a former San Francisco school board member who is now a staff attorney with Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy (META).

“The regulations don’t honor parent choice,” Hernandez said.

META became involved in the latest debate on bilingual policy last September, when a draft of the new regulations first surfaced. An earlier set of emergency regulations was adopted following the passage of Proposition 227.

In October, several groups including META met with some of the state’s most powerful Latino legislators. The groups secured the support of state Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, chairman of the Latino Legislative Caucus.

Polanco has joined parent protests at recent state school board meetings. And he plans to introduce legislation that would require “appropriate instruction, curriculum and materials” for limited-English students.

While advocates of bilingual education welcome the renewed debate over how best to educate immigrant students, foes including Unz see the proposals as attempts to undermine the will of the voters.

“I thought the whole bilingual education issue was settled in California,” said Unz, who backed a similar measure that passed in Arizona and has launched anti-bilingual campaigns in Colorado and Massachusetts.

“Month after month, bilingual advocates have been going to Sacramento, meeting with legislators, showing up at board meetings,” Unz said. “If no one else is paying attention, that can make a difference.”

Mary Hernandez, the attorney with META, said continuing debate is necessary.

E-mail Julian Guthrie at jguthrie@sfchronicle.com.



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