Compliance, defiance as California bilingual education law looms

BERKELEY, Calif. — Most summers, bilingual teacher Mary Rose Ortega looks over her lesson plans just about now and decides what to teach when school doors swing open in September.

Not this year.

Voters in June approved Proposition 227, which virtually eliminated bilingual education classes with its decree that children in the nation’s most populous state should be taught “overwhelmingly" in English.

The measure becomes law Sunday and takes effect a day later. It will be implemented in classes next month.

For administrators and teachers across the state, the fall jitters are already here over a big question: What does it all mean in the classroom?

“Nobody knows, that’s the scary part," said Ms. Ortega, a teacher in Los Angeles. “It’s really depressing. It’s all in the air what’s going to happen."

The response by school districts range from compliance to defiance. Dale Martin, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, said some teachers are frustrated.

“They’re lost," agreed Jim Sweeney, superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District. “I can’t remember anything like this."

Proposition 227, backed by software millionaire Ron Unz, requires that children who have limited English ability be put in a one-year immersion course. After 30 days, parents can get a waiver to put their child back in bilingual education under limited conditions.

The law applies to semesters beginning more than 60 days after the election and the California Board of Education has issued temporary regulations giving districts the power to draw up their own plans.

The law hasn’t been popular in all quarters.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Friday denied a request by bilingual education advocates for an injunction that would have prevented the measure from taking effect Monday.

And in Los Angeles, U.S. District Judge Lourdes Baird refused to block the nation’s second-largest school district from proceeding with a new teaching plan aimed at complying with Proposition 227.

The ruling clears the way for the Los Angeles Unified School District to educate its 312,000 students with limited English proficiency without the benefit of teaching them in their native languages.

Other districts are fighting the change.

The Oakland, Hayward and Berkeley school districts went to state court to try to force the Board of Education to grant them exemptions from the law. Oakland officials say they are bound to provide primary language instruction under an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights.

In Orange County, two districts are asking state Schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin to spare their “dual immersion" programs by using her authority to waive most education laws for alternative and magnet schools. The programs at stake would enroll both English and Spanish speakers, with each learning some core subjects in their non-native language.

The request, still pending, has given rise to speculation that other programs could be exempted this way. Proposition 227 spokeswoman Sheri Annis said she believes any waivers except to charter schools would be illegal.

San Francisco officials, meanwhile, sent parents a letter declaring that the district will offer “a variety of programs" for English-language learners as well as English immersion.

The letter said the move was “NOT an act of defiance," but merely follows a federal consent decree that says children who speak limited English must have access to math, social studies and science while they learn the language.

Some have looked for wiggle room in the fine print, suggesting that the word “overwhelmingly" could mean 60 percent or less.

But Unz said the term “overwhelming" refers to regular classrooms. The operative words in describing the immersion courses are that “nearly all" of instruction will be in English.

“I think we may have to end up taking a lot of these districts to court," Unz said, citing a provision in Proposition 227 allowing parents to sue if teachers or other officials repeatedly refuse to follow the new law.

Unz attacked the old bilingual education system as an unwieldy bureaucracy that by its own measure helped few limited-English children. He argued that most youngsters should be able to pick up English within a year.

But will immersion work? Ms. Ortega, a 21-year veteran of the Los Angeles schools, wasn’t optimistic.

“It’s hard to teach a kid how to read in English if he can’t speak it or understand it," she said. “The kids are going to be looking at you like, `What are you saying?’ "

In Oakland, Jose Zambrano wants his two young sons to stay in bilingual classes though he said a daughter about to enter fourth grade is ready to move on. While he supports his district’s court battle against Proposition 227, he worried about potential classroom problems.

“The thing that concerns me the most is the education of the kids," he said. “You have a lot of kids who are going to be in the classroom without the proper teacher.&quot

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