COSTA MESA, CA—Ronald Wenkart very nearly has seen it all in his 15 years as general legal counsel for the Orange County Department of Education.
But he hasn’t seen anything quite like the endless crashing waves of questions coming his way from Orange County school districts about Proposition 227, the new law which requires that student instruction be mostly in English. The phone keeps ringing with them, the fax machine keeps grinding away with them; there is, it seems, no escape.
“I would say I’m spending at least half of my time on this,” Wenkart says, sitting in his office in the Department of Education’s sprawling complex near the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway.
“I’ve heard from half to three-quarters of the districts in the county. Some of them are small, technical questions, but ones that are important to school administrators. “
School officials want to know if the approaches they have chosen comply with the new law. Some of the questions: Can kids be grouped by language? Can instructional aides address students in Spanish or Vietnamese?
The answers to those questions _ and to most of those posed to Wenkart by districts _ are yes.
“The districts have quite a bit of leeway,” Wenkart says. “The initiative doesn’t address every small, minute issue, except that the instruction is to be overwhelmingly in English. If you go with that premise, you can figure out what to do from there. “
Wenkart patiently has issued advisories and tried to steer district officials safely through the potential land mines.
“Ron’s advisories have been very helpful,” says Neil McKinnon, assistant superintendent of Orange Unified School District.
Despite the controversy that surrounded 227 during the initiative campaign, Wenkart says his impression is that educators intend to abide by the new law. “My sense of it is that they are embracing it as best they can,” he said. “That is the basis of all these questions _ to make sure they are complying. “
Only one other event in Wenkart’s tenure has overshadowed 227: the Orange County bankruptcy, when school districts suddenly were faced with funding shortfalls.
“The bankruptcy was No. 1,” he says. “But this is close, very close. “