Bilingual Teachers Say They Would Defy Prop. 227

Schools: Bracing for the initiative's expected passage, some educators vow to keep speaking foreign languages in the classroom.

With a month to go before voters decide the fate of bilingual education in California public schools, Ventura County educators are bracing for a sea change in the way students who speak little English are taught–and some teachers have vowed to defy Proposition 227 by continuing to speak foreign languages in the classroom.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of civil disobedience,” said Carlos Pagan, principal at Moorpark’s Peach Hill Elementary School, where several teachers have pledged defiance. “That is the nature of the teacher, to help the student the best way he can. And if that means getting sued, they’ll take that risk.”

Proposition 227–also known as the Unz initiative because it is sponsored by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz–would replace bilingual education with English-language immersion and allow parents to sue teachers who repeatedly disobey the new regulations.

The latest in a series of populist state initiatives to target such long-standing liberal government programs as affirmative action, Proposition 227 enjoys a commanding lead in the polls. A Times Poll last month, for instance, found the measure leading 63% to 24% among the state’s registered voters. Among Latino voters, 50% favored it and 32% were opposed.

The initiative’s popularity reflects a consensus that bilingual education has failed to teach students English, leaving generations of minority students ill equipped to compete in the job market, proponents say.

“There is no difference between the system we call bilingual education and the Jim Crow system of the 1940s and 1950s in the South that harmed blacks,” said Steve Frank, a Simi Valley resident and government consultant spearheading the local Proposition 227 campaign. Frank is scheduled to debate USC professor and bilingual education proponent Stephen Krashen today at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

Proposition 227 would dismantle the various programs currently used to educate students with limited English language ability. With certain exceptions, those students would receive one year of English-immersion instruction, then go directly into mainstream classes. Current state guidelines do not limit the length of time students can remain in bilingual classes; most Ventura County school districts aim to have students in English-language classrooms by fourth or fifth grade.

The initiative has drawn fierce opposition from teachers, who say bilingual education is the best way to teach English while ensuring that students keep pace in math, social studies and other subjects. They also complain that the initiative encroaches on local control by preventing districts from tailoring their bilingual programs to fit their student populations.

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School districts in Moorpark, Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Paula and Ojai are among those that have passed resolutions opposing Proposition 227.

In Ventura County, 25,000 students–94% of whom speak Spanish as their primary language–are considered limited-English speakers. They are taught in a variety of ways: About 50% get their first few years of instruction in their native language, while 30% are taught in English-only classes, with special booster classes to help them learn the new language faster. Most others attend regular classes with no special attention.

Yet despite the different approaches to bilingual education, teachers across the county agree that passage of Proposition 227 would usher in a tumultuous period of change and open numerous legal, educational and financial questions: Just what legal risks do teachers face? Could the new initiative be struck down in court? How much will it cost to buy new textbooks and train bilingual teachers to retool their teaching methods?

Answers to these questions could unfold quickly: If passed, the new regulations would take effect two months later.

And while refusing to concede defeat, bilingual teachers across the county are already planning for change.

Some Teachers Take Less Militant Stance

The most fervent opponents say they will not change at all. Some bilingual teachers have already informed administrators that they will not revise their curricula but instead continue to teach in foreign languages and face the consequences, said Cliff Rodrigues, director of bilingual education for the county superintendent of schools.

“The official position is, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll do what the law tells us,’ ” Rodrigues said. But, he added, “they’re going to deliver the content in Spanish and will not go exclusively English.”

Others teachers plan a less militant approach, saying they will give English immersion a try. But, some teachers say, if a Spanish-speaking student grows visibly frustrated while trying to grasp such concepts as addition and subtraction because he or she cannot understand the English terms, the teachers will speak to them in Spanish to push them along.

“I’m going to have to” speak Spanish, said Jackie Pinson, a third-grade bilingual teacher at Peach Hill Elementary School in Moorpark. “It’s hard to imagine how uncomfortable a student would be if he can’t understand. You have to communicate with them. hat’s why we’re here.”

Andrea Polido, a bilingual teacher at Oxnard’s Marina West Elementary School, said she, too, will revert to Spanish if necessary.

“The sense that I’m getting is that teachers are going to stretch and struggle,” Polido said. “There isn’t any organized effort, but teachers are going to do whatever they can.”

By defying Proposition 227, teachers would presumably face penalties from local school districts charged with implementing the new regulations. School officials throughout the county are just beginning to plan how enforcement will be carried out.

“We’ll obey the law,” said Joseph Spirito, superintendent of the Ventura Unified School District. “But I won’t go monitor the classrooms, just as I don’t go to see if the teachers are reading the Bible every day.”

Meanwhile, state education officials will convene a committee this month, which among other things will discuss issuing enforcement guidelines to school districts.

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“It’s a really uncertain legal landscape,” said Allan Keown, a state Department of Education attorney. “I can’t really say” what the recommendations would be.

A key clause in Proposition 227, however, stipulates that parents can take charge of enforcement by suing school boards, administrators and even teachers if a student has been “denied the option of an English-language instructional curriculum.”

A teacher’s repeated use of foreign languages, even while trying to teach English, could be found to constitute such a denial, legal experts say. Even parents of English-speaking children could sue if a teacher addresses others in another language, proponents say.

Floyd Feeney, a law professor at UC Davis who has written a book on California ballot initiatives, noted that the initiative would not subject teachers, administrators and school districts to criminal charges.

Rather, if parents claiming their child was improperly receiving bilingual instruction prevailed in civil court, the court could require school officials to pay attorneys fees. And if parents had to hire tutors or incur other expenses to make sure their child learned English, a court could order school officials to reimburse those costs. Proposition 227 specifies that punitive damages would not be awarded.

“You’re not going to get huge amounts of money for bringing these suits,” Feeney said. “What you mostly would get is orders for school boards” to implement English immersion.

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And although Feeney noted that school boards would probably provide legal representation to teachers, bilingual teachers say they still feel threatened by the legal uncertainties and potential financial penalties.

“Do I have to sign off my house, and be poor, just to do my job?” asked Pinson, the Moorpark bilingual teacher.

Both sides of the debate view litigation over the initiative, if approved, as inevitable.

Indeed, in announcing its opposition to Proposition 227 last week, Clinton administration officials indicated lawsuits brought by the federal Office of Civil Rights are possible if parents supportive of bilingual education file discrimination complaints.

“They’re going to try to get the courts to overturn the voters’ wishes,” said Frank, the local Proposition 227 campaign chief. “They’re going to try to win in the courts, because they can’t win in the court of public opinion.”

Experts Divided on Legal Question

Experts are split as to what the outcome of such litigation would be. Feeney thinks the initiative would withstand discrimination charges, in part because evidence over which method is best for students–English immersion or bilingual education–is inconclusive.

“There’s nothing in here that on its face is blatant discrimination,” Feeney said.

But Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law professor, views a civil rights challenge as potentially strong, saying a failure to provide bilingual education could be seen as blocking equal access to education.

“Second, I think there’d be a 1st Amendment challenge,” Chemerinsky added, “simply because of the restriction on expression.”

Yet even before the issue reaches the courts, teachers say there will be immediate, pressing issues.

In Oxnard and Moorpark, for instance, administrators have already run estimates to figure out how much it will cost to replace foreign-language textbooks. Oxnard elementary school officials say costs could reach $600,000; Moorpark officials say they could spend $70,000 on new English-language texts.

And though the Unz initiative proposes the state spend $50 million annually on adult English-language education, school officials complain there is no money earmarked for new textbooks.

“There’s going to be a tremendous strain on the materials budget,” says Ventura County Supt. of Schools Charles Weis.

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Meanwhile, officials at Marina West Elementary School have already held several meetings with Latino parents to inform them of a clause in the proposed law that would allow them to pull their children from English classrooms and put them back in bilingual classes. But parents would first have to take several steps, including visiting the school and receiving paperwork describing both options.

“Our feeling is, we really need to be prepared for the passage of the initiative, because it enjoys such wide support,” says Marina West Principal Peter Chapa, one of the few county educators who will concede Proposition 227’s popularity.

Most school officials say they still have a month to make their case that the initiative represents too radical a change and too much risk.

“A lot of people will be confused and impatient,” says Rodrigues. “It will be chaotic.”

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Proposition 227 proponent Steve Frank of Simi Valley and Stephen Krashen, a USC professor and supporter of bilingual education, will debate the measure from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. today at California Lutheran University’s Preus-Brandt Forum. Cal Lutheran is at 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For information, call 493-3520.

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