Bilingual Ban Begins, Sort Of

Bay Area's major districts balk at 227, but L.A. tries to comply

With the fall semester under way for California’s 1.4 million limited-English-speaking schoolchildren, many are, for the first time, in programs designed to quickly phase them out of bilingual education, while others are in the same programs as before, oblivious to the court battles around them.

Those in the former group — including students in the Los Angeles Unified School District — are the subject of the state’s biggest educational challenge: how to ensure that students classified as English learners can learn the language without instruction in their native tongues, as mandated by the 61 percent of voters who approved Proposition 227 in June. Those in the latter — including students in San Francisco and Oakland — face a kind of educational limbo as districts seek out legal and technical ways to avoid much of the law’s effect.

The measure, led to success by Silicon Valley software engineer Ron Unz, encourages districts to place English learners of all ages into a single class for one year of instruction taught overwhelmingly in English only. After that time, students are to return to mainstream classes.

Unz concedes that implementation of his initiative has been spotty. “It seems to be a pretty mixed bag all around the state,” Unz said. “Most schools say they’re implementing it…but we just don’t know.

“We’re monitoring the schools in a passive sense, and we’ve been getting lots of calls from parents or teachers with school districts who are violating terms of Prop.227,” he said. “A lot of this will be self-policing if the district is violating the terms of the initiative.”

Unz said it is still too soon to make a decision on how to address schools that violate the initiative, though the law makes it easier for parents to sue educators who keep kids in bilingual education against the parents’ wishes. “As we gather information, we’ll decide what action to take or support.”

In Los Angeles, where some 200 of 668 public schools, began their fall semester two weeks ago, the district is trying to comply with the law by offering instruction only in English in all but bilingual classes, which must be taught 70 to 80 percent in English. (Bilingual teachers can, however, explain a concept in a child’s native language if they perceive that the child does not understand the English-language explanation.)

The new approach affects the 46 percent of Los Angeles’ 681,000 schoolchildren who are classified as limited-English speaking. The overwhelming majority of those kids — 92 percent — come from homes in which Spanish is the major language used. Armenian ranks a distant second at 1.53 percent. Korean comes in third at 1.21 percent (about 6.5 percent of the district’s children are Asian American.)

“What we’re doing now is really the flip side of what we were doing,” explained Socorro Serrano, the district’s communication officer. “In our bilingual classes before, about 80 percent of the time in the classroom was using the home language, like Spanish for example, and 20 percent of the time was spent using English.”

Over two to three years, English was used more often with the child’s native language being used less and less. “Now, we just do the flip side and teach children their core subjects in English and offer them assistance in their native language,” Serrano says.

Prop. 227 provides for parental waivers after 30 days of instruction. In Los Angeles, parents can seek to have their children moved either to all-English classes or into classes using some bilingual instruction after that time, and some year-round schools that began classes in mid-August are fast approaching the first 30 days of school. Still, so far the district has received little indication of whether it will be deluged with requests.

“At this point right now we’re not being inundated, but we’ll be waiting over the next few days,” Serrano said. “We’ll be sending out e-mails to each of the schools and find out what’s going on. However, we do not want to run contrary to the law…we don’t want to solicit and tell parents to get their waivers in. We’re being conservative at this point.”

Despite the district’s new approach, Castelar Elementary School in Los Angeles Chinatown did not have to change existing programs that serve 700 of its 950 students to accommodate Prop. 227, according to Principal Cheuk Choi. He explained that the school had offered English-only classes as an alternative to its bilingual program before the proposition came about.

“The basic change is that before 227, parents had a right to request the alternative program, which is now similar to [English-only classes]. But now, if people want a bilingual program, they have to ask for it in terms of a waiver,” he explained. Before opening this fall, Castelar held informational meetings for largely Cantonese-speaking parents to let them know of the law and their options.

“We have the same programs, but it is the parents’ [choice] right now,” Choi said. “We can’t tell parents where their children should be.”

Not all districts are implementing the law. San Francisco Unified claims it cannot legally do so, saying it must maintain its bilingual programs to comply with the settlement reached in Lau vs. Nichols, the landmark 1974 Supreme Court decision that set the stage for most of today’s bilingual-ed programs, though the justices did not mandate such instruction.

In that case, justices sided with Chinese American parents who had sued the district for not offering limited-English speaking students equal access to educational programs. In its decision, the court found that because the district had not provided special programs to help limited-English speakers overcome their deficiency in that language, it had failed to provide equal access to instruction. As part of a consent decree settling the suit, the district agreed to provide those programs, which evolved into a constellation of bilingual-ed approaches that today serve about one-third of the district’s 61,000 students. Of all San Francisco’s students, about 4 in 10 are of Asian descent.

Still, the district has made some minor changes to its programs for limited-English speakers. While the actual offerings (which include bilingual education and English-only instruction) remain the same, the district has renamed them: basic bilingual education tracks, for example, are now called “English Plus Programs.” Offered alongside mainstream instruction, they still include a dual-language enrichment track, in which classes are taught using English and the students’ primary language to help students become proficient in English and their primary language; total and two-way immersion programs, where classes are taught using English and another language so students can become fluent in two languages; and intensive English programs, in which kids are taught primarily in English.

As in Los Angeles, parents who want their children in bilingual classes will need to apply for a waiver. “What is different is that we’ll continue to offer all of our existing programs, but with the parent’s consent,” said Anita Lau, program administrator of a language academy. “English is still the crucial element of all of these programs.”

San Francisco, too, is relying on parental waivers, especially if its legal arguments ultimately don’t wash. Although San Francisco Superintendent Bill Rojas was initially defiant toward Prop. 227, the district modified its approach after courts refused to block the law: Instead of open defiance, San Francisco officials hope well publicized opportunities for parental waivers preserve programs.

The opportunity to tell parents about the district’s offerings is, in fact, one of the good things to come from Prop. 227, said Helen Joe-Lew, a resource teacher at the language academy. “Parents think that teachers are only teaching in Chinese or Spanish, that they’re not being taught in English, and that’s not true.”

Across the bay, Oakland schools are also arguing that federal compliance agreements mandate its existing programs.

“We have an obligation to our students, their parents and our community to ensure that our English-language learners are offered instruction that meets their needs,” said Oakland Superintendent Carole Quan.

Like many other districts, Oakland is relying on parental requests for waivers to keep the classes going. This week, the district is mailing letters to parents of nearly 18,000 limited-English students (out of 53,273 total), inviting them to a special meeting at which they can select an instruction option. Said Quan: “We believe we can provide a full range of English instruction.”

At least 30 districts (but not San Francisco) are seeking exemptions from the state Board of Education after the judge ruled that such requests must be heard. Last week, two Orange County schools became the first to win exemptions for their programs, which teach students in both Spanish and English.

“Under state law, [the board] is required to review the waiver request and cannot use the excuse of ‘voter approved’ to deny the districts,” said state Deputy Superintendent of Schools Henry Der. He added, however, that while the state must consider waiving the bilingual education ban, as educators from San Jose to Oakland to Berkeley have requested, it can still say no. The board is to hear requests from six districts, including those three, at its meeting today.

Unz, said the districts’ attempts to get waivers from Prop. 227 was “absurd.”

“There is no legal basis,” Unz said. “The California Constitution says in the strongest terms that initiatives supersede all countervailing statutes. It always takes precedence over other types of law.

“It can only be waived by individual parents…only parents can apply for waivers; the school districts can’t.”

Not only Unz, but also many bilingual-education advocates are skeptical about the districts’ chances.

“The board’s open hostility towards bilingual education and to children suggests that it is highly unlikely that they will grant these waivers,” said Theodore Wang of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

He said that as long as educators have the option of choosing among several ways to teach English, including using a bilingual approach, children should reach their ultimate goal of learning the language. Educators “like to have choices…because kids are all different.”

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