When Proposition 227 passed on June 2, voters thought that students would
be taught only in English. But the battle over bilingual education in
California is far from over. The minority who lost are fighting back.
In Los Angeles Unified School District, the battle against the measure is
waged covertly under outward compliance. Teachers learn about Proposition 227
policies twice: first in the dry and ambiguous language of district and union
memos, then verbally and in surprising new forms at union meetings.
I attended one such meeting in August. Theresa Montano, who heads the
United Teachers of Los Angeles’ Bilingual Committee, spoke concerning the
district’s interpretation of Proposition 227. The first thing she said was a
surprise: The district allows that in English immersion classes, up to 49% of
the day’s instruction can be in Spanish. In other words, a story may be read to
students in English but the “concepts” may be explained in Spanish. Bulletin
boards may be in Spanish. In addition, a teacher in classrooms where children
speak little or no English must have the old-style bilingual credential
certifying fluency in Spanish and, not incidentally, conferring on the teacher
an extra $5,000 a year.
Montano said at the meeting that the district officials who were developing
this policy shared “our struggle.” But others might question whether this
policy represents English immersion, i.e., “overwhelmingly in the English
language,” called for in the initiative.
Montano then discussed the waiver provision of Proposition 227, which
provides that a parent can seek bilingual education for a child under certain
circumstances, including “emotional, educational and psychological” needs. The
assumption has been that the burden of proof in these cases will rest on the
parents. But Montano told us that the district had promised that every waiver
will be granted. All a parent must assert, Montano went on, is that the child
“needs” or “wants” bilingual instruction or is “nervous” about only-in-English
instruction. Montano said it was imperative that teachers communicate to all
parents that the waiver was the best choice.
A group of bilingual teachers and representatives from the Mexican American
Legal Defense Fund and the Los Angeles County Board of Education then explained
that, since it is illegal to promote avoidance of English immersion on school
time, we should hold after-school meetings to bring parents the word. The
speakers passed out applications for permits authorizing use of school
auditoriums for such meetings. They promised 1,000 free flyers to announce each
meeting to parents plus training for teachers in how to conduct the meetings.
We received a hotline number to report instances when parents were not fully
informed of their right to avoid English immersion.
A few weeks after this meeting, I attended UTLA’s leadership conference in
Palm Springs, where Montano and the district’s top bilingual official, Forrest
Ross, explained that English alphabet and letter sounds would not be taught in
English immersion classes in kindergarten and first grade per “proven”
bilingual theory. Only children receiving bilingual education under the waiver
would learn English alphabet and letter sounds. If you find that confusing,
join the club.
Irate teachers pointed out that Latino parents would, in effect, be forced
to choose the bilingual waiver in order to have phonics taught to their
children. Ross replied that research has shown this to be best.
So what we have here, it seems, is a collaboration of district and union
officials and bilingual teachers to keep Spanish instruction in the classroom
with its attendant flow of money and perks in a seeming attempt at an end-run
around the intent of 227 and the will of the voters.
Lawsuits from supporters of English immersion are in the offing. The
outcome of this struggle, which is just beginning, should answer the question
of whether a popular initiative with virtually no legal problems can be
Douglas Lasken is a fifth-grade teacher and teachers’ union representative
at Ramona Elementary School in Hollywood