Polls show voters are poised to say adios to bilingual education in California,
but Bay Area school officials have no plans to switch to a new era of English-only instruction this September.
Rather than assuming that the anti-bilingual measure will pass June 2 and planning for reconfigured classrooms and curriculum, districts from San Francisco to Santa Clara are betting that the voice of the people can be silenced by the din of civil rights challenges.
“If this passes, I will fight this as far and as fully as we can,
as we did with 187,” said San Francisco schools Superintendent Bill Rojas, referring to Prop. 187, which sought to deny benefits to undocumented aliens but was ruled unconstitutional. “In principle, I couldn’t implement this and I wouldn’t.”
Rojas added: “There are multiple civil rights groups prepared to challenge this. We would either join in or consider our own lawsuit.”
School officials in Berkeley, Contra Costa, East Palo Alto, Marin, Oakland,
Sacramento and San Jose unanimously and bitterly oppose the initiative.
“To recommend to my school board that we do anything other than continue to implement our bilingual programs would be immoral and unethical,”
said Santiago Wood, superintendent of Alum Rock Union Elementary in San Jose, where 67 percent of the 16,000 students lack English skills.
In Ravenswood City Elementary in East Palo Alto, nearly 70 percent of the 4,700 students speak a language other than English.
“I have no plans to change our method of bilingual instruction,”
said Superintendent Charlie Mae Knight. “The best way to assist my youngsters is to teach them through their primary language and transition them into English after three years. I will continue to do that. I expect that this will go the same way as 187.”
This defiant inaction by school officials comes at a time when the latest Field Poll shows Proposition 227 is favored by a stunning 70 percent of likely voters. The initiative, which would end most bilingual education programs, would take effect when school starts in the fall.
“Heads in the sand’
The initiative’s author, Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, says school districts are behaving irresponsibly and “sticking their heads in the sand” if they believe the initiative would be overturned by lawsuits.
“There is no legal basis for bilingual education,” Unz said.
“There might be some legal delays, maybe of two weeks. Certainly not two months. At this point, districts should be coming up with contingency plans.
“We have been saying all along that 227 is legally constitutional and won’t be tied up in court like various past initiatives,” Unz continued.
“California voters can rest assured that their decision on June 2 will be final.”
Although the Clinton administration has declared its opposition to Prop.
227, castigating it as counterproductive and “just plain wrong,”
administration legal analysts said it would not violate civil rights laws,
including the Supreme Court landmark 1973 Lau vs. Nichols ruling.
In that case, brought by Chinese parents in San Francisco, a court ruled that school districts must take necessary steps to ensure that students who lack English skills are able to participate equally in classroom activities.
U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley said that limiting English immersion classes to one year and preventing a school from providing bilingual instruction to students would “likely result in violations” of the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974.
The act, like the Lau decision, requires public schools to overcome language barriers that impede students from participating in instructional programs.
The organizations said to be considering legal challenges to the Unz initiative include the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy group.
“We’ve come out strongly against the initiative,” said Joseph Jaramillo, a staff attorney at MALDEF. “The question before voters is whether Prop. 227 is the best way to educate English language learners in California. Clearly, the answer is no.
“This is the most critical issue facing the education of our children in California,” said Jaramillo, who declined to discuss any potential litigation.
Although many other states grapple with how best to teach children who lack English skills, California faces unprecedented linguistic challenges.
About 1.3 million students in California public schools speak a foreign language and have limited English skills, constituting 43 percent of the nation’s limited English proficient students.
87 primary languages
There are 87 foreign primary languages, but Spanish is dominant, spoken by more than 1 million children in the state.
“The changes under this initiative will be so Draconian for us,”
said Larry Aceves, superintendent of Franklin-McKinley in San Jose, where 52 languages are spoken in the 10,000-student elementary and middle school district.
“We have students arriving from Vietnam, Mexico and Central America every day. How do you plan for that?” Aceves said. “It takes us three years to get them to move beyond playground English to academic English.
This is a real nightmare for my teachers. After one year of instruction we’re supposed to place them at random in classrooms with no language support?”
San Rafael City Elementary schools chief Barbara Smith, calling the Unz initiative “up there in the top 10 worst ideas I’ve ever heard,”
refuses to have “language police going around making sure Spanish is never spoken.”
“If there’s a child who speaks Spanish and he doesn’t understand what the teacher says, and the teacher speaks Spanish,” Smith said,
“she will speak to him in Spanish.”
The initiative would require that all children who lack English skills be taught in English. The key provisions of the initiative are:
*For up to one year, immigrant children would be placed in classrooms to learn English. Native languages and grades would be mixed together: A Cantonese-speaking first-grader could attend class with a Spanish-speaking fifth-grader.
*Immigrant parents who want their children exempted from such classes would need to apply annually in person for a waiver, first hearing a presentation of the program. Waivers would be granted only to children who already know English, who are older than 10, or who have “special needs” as determined by school staff.
*Bilingual instruction would be offered only if 20 parents received a waiver at any school.
*$50 million per year for 10 years would pay for English lessons for adults who pledge to provide English tutoring to children in their community.
*Schools that refuse to provide English-only classes and instruction could be liable for attorneys’ fees and “actual damages.” Teachers,
administrators and school board members could be held personally liable.
San Francisco school board member Jill Wynns said the board is “certainly not planning to comply,” despite the personal legal threat. “Our board is as opposed to this as we can be. Whatever we can do, up to and including legal action, we will do.”
But, after three decades of bilingual instruction in California, the civil rights obligations of schools remain oblique and unanswered, experts say.
“There has not been a ruling that said students have a constitutional right to an equal education opportunity vis-a-vis language,” said Jim Lyons, a civil rights attorney and executive director of the nonprofit National Association for Bilingual Education.
“There is a constitutional right to instruction,” Lyons said.
“But we haven’t had any Supreme Court ruling on whether native-language instruction is necessary.”
While Lyons and other educators have no doubt the initiative would be challenged by lawsuits, he believes school districts should prepare for the possibility of English-only classrooms.
“Anyone who is aggrieved and harmed would have standing to sue,”
Lyons said. “Some school districts will feel so strongly about this they’ll engage in civil disobedience. There would be a stay, but the initiative could very well be upheld.”
Former state Sen. Gary Hart, co-director of the Institute for Education Reform at Cal State Sacramento, agrees that the initiative will likely be tied up in courts, but only for a while.
“This has a good chance of passing and being upheld by the courts,”
he cautioned. “Districts ought to have a contingency plan.”
On Monday, The Examiner looks at an Oakland classroom where children of immigrants are taught only in English.