Bilingual Back Talk

Educators, Politicians Look for Countermeasures to California Initiative

SAN FRANCISCO — Just days after California voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to outlaw bilingual education, civil rights groups have filed suit to challenge the new law and school districts are finding ways around it.

Sixty-one percent of California voters approved Proposition 227 — the “English language in public schools initiative” — on June 2, but several civil rights groups filed suit the next day against Gov. Pete Wilson, Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, and members of the state Board of Education in U.S. District Court here. The groups include the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, and the California Latino Civil Rights Network.

Proposition 227 gives schools sixty days to develop a year-long English-only program in which children are grouped by their knowledge of English rather than grade level or native language. They are to spend one year in English immersion instruction, after which they will join the regular curriculum.

Approximately 1.4 million California students — about one in four — speak limited English and do not understand the language well enough to keep up in school. Some 700,000 California children have been taught, at least partly, in a non-English language, records show.

Under Proposition 227, such classes will be prohibited for children under age ten unless parents of at least twenty students in the same grade make a request in person each year that their children be taught in another language.

The new law “will treat immigrant children like they have a disease,” said Ted Wang of Chinese for Affirmative Action, which joined in filing the suit.

The lawsuit calls Proposition 227 “a superficially alluring, yet educationally simplistic scheme.”

African Americans and Latinos strongly voted against the measure. Opponents of the proposition argue that replacing bilingual education with 180 days of English lessons restricts immigrant children’s access to equal education as guaranteed under federal law. The civil rights groups that filed the lawsuit expects a hearing on the matter in early July.

Although named in the lawsuit, Superintendent Eastin opposed Proposition 227 and favors improving bilingual education rather than eliminating it. She has set up a task force to review possible conflicts between the new state law and federal laws.

“I will be contacting school districts within the next few weeks with preliminary guidance,” said Eastin, who added that until the law is clarified she “will uphold the will of the voters until the courts tell us to stop.”

Eastin faces a run-off election in November against Gloria Matta Tuchman, co-sponsor of Proposition 227.

School districts are employing various methods to avoid implementing the new law. Oakland, Berkeley, and San Jose school districts say they will seek a waiver from the state Board of Education to avoid enforcing English-only classes. San Jose educators say that if they are not granted a waiver, they may join the lawsuit to block the measure, or seek litigation of their own.

San Francisco schools are employing civil disobedience by refusing to comply. A notice sent home with San Francisco students on June 4 was titled “S.F. Schools to Maintain Bilingual Programs.” San Francisco’s superintendent of schools, Bill Rojas, a vocal opponent of Proposition 227, wrote in the notice: “Parents in San Francisco schools are clamoring for more bilingual and language immersion programs. It is our responsibility as educators to prevent bad policy from wreaking havoc on our instructional programs.”

Yet teachers, school administrators, and elected officials can be sued and held personally liable if they do not comply with tile provisions of Proposition 227. Plus, the money used to pay for bilingual programs — 61 million in federal funding — may no longer be available because the new law prohibits them, according to Delia Pompa, bilingual education director for the U.S. Department of Education.

Governor Wilson, a Republican, announced his support for Proposition 227 last month and vetoed a bill to reform the bilingual education system. His final term as governor ends this year.

The main candidates to replace Wilson uniformly opposed Proposition 227, including the Republican nominee, Dan Lungren, who says he opposes Proposition 227 because it precludes local control in education.

“So long as you have statewide standards, local decision-making which will adapt to the particular students that you have is the best direction we can take to successfully educate our children,” he said.

Yet he complimented Ron Unz, the millionaire Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who authored Proposition 227, for bringing the issue to the ballot.

“Ron Unz has done us a great service,” said Lungren, who supported the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, which California voters approved last fall.

Lungren believes an overhaul of California’s public school system would give every student a chance to succeed, regardless of ethnicity. Meanwhile, he says he wants to put a greater emphasis on utilizing the state’s 107 community colleges, particularly for students whose elementary and secondary education were substandard.

Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis — who beat out Congress-woman Jane Harman and former Northwest Airlines chairman Al Checchi for the Democratic party nomination for governor — has complained that Proposition 227 is “a one-size-fits-all solution.” And while he prefers to let parents decide if their children are taught bilingually or through English immersion, he believes that a school should take no longer than three years to move a student into English-language instruction — and, he would reward schools that could make the change in one or two years.

Regarding diversity in education. Davis proposes admitting the top ten students from every California high school to the University of California.

“If they’re in the top ten, they’re obviously qualified kids,” he said.

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