California teachers to defy bilingual ban

Districts also want to keep programs

LOS ANGELES – Many teachers and some school districts in California plan to defy a ban on bilingual education when school reopens this fall.


Californians voted six weeks ago by more than a 3-to-2 margin to ban most bilingual education programs in public schools. However, more than 1,500 Los Angeles-area teachers have already signed pledges to continue teaching English-deficient children in Spanish, Vietnamese and two dozen other languages.


Leaders of the San Francisco school district say they’ll continue existing programs even if legal challenges to the bilingual ban fail. And school officials in cities such as Oakland, San Jose and Berkeley say they will seek ways around the prohibition.


The new law, passed on June 2 as Proposition 227, orders public schools to give students deemed deficient in English one year of intensive instruction in English, then place them into mainstream classes taught only in English for the rest of their elementary and high school years.


More than 1.4 million California pupils – 28 percent of the total elementary and high school enrollment – now are categorized as knowing limited English. Most have been taught in their native languages since the federal Bilingual Education Act passed in 1968. But less than 5 percent of those pupils moved into mainstream English-only classrooms last year.


Under Proposition 227, if parents of enough pupils to fill a classroom at any one school sign waivers asking for continued instruction in a single foreign language, the schools must provide it. But the new law allows lawsuits for monetary damages against teachers and administrators who persist in teaching classes in languages other than English under any other conditions.


“This would set our students back 30 years,” said San Francisco school board President Carlota del Portillo, whose board voted unanimously the day after the anti-bilingual initiative passed to continue bilingual programs and join a federal court lawsuit to block the new law. The suit was filed by a coalition of civil rights groups including the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the American Civil Liberties Union.


Added San Francisco School Superintendent Bill Rojas, “It is our responsibility as educators to prevent bad policy from wreaking havoc on our instructional programs.” Mr. Rojas also said publicly that he would rather go to jail than implement a law he calls “offensive” and “immoral.”


Other districts hope agreements with the federal government will exempt them from the ban on bilingual classes. The West Contra Costa County district, northeast of San Francisco, says it believes it can continue honoring a 4-year-old contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to provide English-deficient students instruction in their native languages. “We’re not making any plans to change our current educational model,” said Susan Dunlap, a bilingual-education administrator for the district.


The Los Angeles-area teachers planning to defy Proposition 227 banded together in an ad hoc organization called On Campus. “We have signatures from five districts, mostly from the Los Angeles Unified district,” said organizer Steve Zimmer, who teaches English as a second language at Marshall High School in Los Angeles. “But we can’t assume every teacher who has signed will commit civil disobedience.”


Arturo Selva, a longtime first-grade teacher at Bridge Street School in East Los Angeles, says he will defy the law if he feels it’s necessary for the good of his students.


“The bottom line is, are we going to be here for the children or not?” he told a reporter. “Once you close your [classroom] door, people who don’t believe in English-only are going to sabotage it.”


Mr. Selva is one of 14,800 certified bilingual education teachers in California. Many feel their future and the years they spent training for their specialty jobs – which carry large pay differentials over teachers qualified to instruct only in English – are now threatened. “Two twenty-seven could wipe me out completely,” he said.


Other teachers also say they will refuse to let the new law cramp their style. “I speak Spanish when I meet with parents. I send a bulletin to my Spanish-speaking parents every week in Spanish. And I teach in both Spanish and English. I’m not going to stop, because I know it’s helping the kids,” said Gloria Ramirez Naylor, who teaches second grade in a predominantly Salvadoran Los Angeles suburb.


Playing on both the determination of many teachers to continue bilingual instruction and their fears, school districts in some other states have begun trying to recruit bilingual teachers from California. Most active are districts in Texas, which has a shortage of such teachers.


“We have an opportunity to attract some qualified people here and we’re going to jump on it,” said Mac Bernd, superintendent of the 55,000-student Arlington Independent School District, located between Dallas and Fort Worth. He said he hopes to attract as many as 45 teachers to his district and hired five in a three-day mid-June trip to Southern California.


But California education officials say such efforts will probably have only limited success because certified bilingual teachers are not at risk of losing their jobs. All are also certified to teach in English-only classrooms, and with California’s present shortage of teachers, the worst situation they might face would be loss of their pay differential.


“I don’t want to say anything bad about Texas and the other states recruiting here,” said Mr. Zimmer, organizer of On Campus. “But California is the place where the teaching of recent immigrant students is the most dynamic of any place in the country.”


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