Proposition 227: The Waiting Game

Area Schools Need Guidelines on Policy; Limited-English Pupils' Primary Languages Barred

Local school districts have waited to implement Proposition 227 until a federal judge in San Francisco decided whether or not to uphold it.

Now that the judge has ruled in favor of the proposition’s implementation,
district officials say they will continue waiting only a month before the school year starts.

More guidance is needed on the issue from the California State Department of Education, district leaders said.

“We have not developed any plan yet,” said Roberta De Luca, assistant superintendent of educational programs at the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District. “We are waiting for state guidelines.”

De Luca echoed officials at the Long Beach, ABC, Downey and Compton school districts who have spent the last year watching the battle over bilingual education unfold.

Also known as the English for Children initiative, Proposition 227 bars schools from teaching limited-English students in their primary language.
Instead, it recommends these students be placed in a one-year immersion program. If they are not fluent after one year, they can apply to get additional English instruction. However, they are not to receive any instruction in their primary language unless their parents can show a valid reason why.

The initiative won by a landslide in the June 2 election and districts were told they had to implement it by the 1998-99 school year. However,
several groups, including the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, sued the state, saying the law was discriminatory and unconstitutional and should be blocked.

The state Department of Education asked the districts to hold off on any planning until the suit was decided, even though they knew that if the law were upheld, the districts would only have a short time to prepare.

Last Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Charles Legge threw out the suit.
The groups involved have since announced their intention to appeal, but until they win that appeal, 227 stands.

The problem is that, although the Department of Education did release a set of emergency regulations for districts last week, they are vague and do not address several important questions, said Eliya Obillo, director of special projects and services at the ABC Unified School District.

For example, Obillo said, although the regulations talk about what schools should do once a limited-English student becomes fluent, they do not give schools any standards they should use to determine that fluency. Nor do they address a sore point for many 227 opponents: How much of a limited-English student’s primary language can a teacher use without getting sued?

“They have to tell us what a teacher can and cannot do,” Obillo said.

District officials say they want the regulations to address specific concerns so they can make sure their new programs will comply with the law.

Moving with caution

“We don’t want to design a program, only to have the state come in and dismantle it in a few months,” said Downey Unified School District Superintendent Ed Sussman.

But that doesn’t mean the districts are sitting around doing nothing,
Obillo said. A task force, made up of officials from school districts across the county, has been meeting several times a week in the past month. Their primary goal is to make sure limited-English students learn the language while not losing ground in other academic subjects.

“Our plan is to have students have access to everything,” Obillo said.

One thing no districts want is to put students from different grades in the same classroom in an effort to speed up English comprehension.

Long Beach, ABC and NorwalkLa Mirada should have enough students not to have to do that, officials from each district said. But other districts might. Therefore, the Department of Education needs to advise on this problem,
officials said.

Meeting in Downey

Mindful of local districts’ concerns, the Los Angeles County Office of Education is holding a meeting in Downey on Monday. At the meeting, the above questions will be answered, along with several others, including:

* When should year-round schools implement 227?

* Should parents who want their students in alternative programs renew their waivers every year?

* What process will the state Board of Education use to make sure local guidelines for parental waivers follow the law?

Nothing will be accomplished unless all such issues are settled, said Long Beach Unified Superintendent Carl Cohn.

“If you really want to do something of academic quality you have to have some time,” Cohn said.

And in spite of the fall deadline, Long Beach Unified will not be “running around with our heads cut off,” Cohn said.

“We’ll have a nice quiet start of school,” Cohn said. “If the program is not ready by September 2, I don’t think Western civilization would collapse.”

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