County Educators Debate How to Adhere to Language of Law

Prop. 227: Teachers say until guidelines are clear on ending bilingual education, students will come first.

Despite landslide passage of an initiative aimed at dismantling bilingual education, El Rio elementary schoolteacher Kathy Szlykowicz is planning to use whatever means necessary to help students who speak little or no English.

And Nancy Carroll, superintendent of the Ocean View School District south of Oxnard, said she worries about trying to translate the vague language of the initiative into the practical reality of the classroom.

But Steve Frank, a Simi Valley resident and government consultant who spearheaded the local Proposition 227 campaign, says teachers should simply buckle down and obey the new law.

“The people in this county are sick and tired of having segregated education,” Frank said. “Any educator who refuses to enforce the law is a poor role model.”

Ventura County voters on Tuesday were even more supportive of Proposition 227 than voters elsewhere, with 66% of the local electorate backing the measure compared with 61% statewide.

Passage of the landmark initiative thrusts Ventura County educators into uncharted territory, leaving them to figure out whether they will have to make wholesale changes in their bilingual programs.

Some predicted the initiative would have little practical effect in light of efforts announced Wednesday to block the measure in court.

Others braced for at least some change, but worried they have few guidelines to follow to carry out the new law designed to replace bilingual education with an untested English-language immersion program.

Still others vowed to defy the measure, arguing that native-language instruction is still the best way to teach students who struggle with English.

Szlykowicz fears many of her students could fall behind academically under the provisions of Proposition 227.

“The bottom line is that the children come first,” said Szlykowicz, a first-grade teacher at Rio Real Elementary School north of Oxnard whose entire classroom consists of limited-English speakers.

“I think the stand of most teachers is that we will do whatever it takes to help these children,” she said. “Some people might call that civil disobedience, but it’s our job to provide what they need to learn.”

“I think teachers will always do what they feel is best for the students,” said Carlos Pagan, principal of Moorpark’s Peach Hill Elementary School, where about one-third of the students are not proficient in English.

“If they are in a situation where they have skills they can use to help their students, I think they will. That’s just the nature of the profession.”

But proponents of the measure argued that the current system of bilingual education is doing more harm than good, failing generations of schoolchildren and putting them at a disadvantage in the job market.

The “English for the Children” initiative sought to turn that tide.

Sponsored by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, it requires virtually all classroom instruction to be in English, with limited exceptions.

The initiative holds teachers and school officials personally liable for violating its provisions, enabling parents to sue educators for failing to provide appropriate English-language instruction.

But Charles Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools, who was reelected to office Tuesday with nearly 70% of the vote, said the measure seeks to put in place a program that is largely untested and could prove harmful to the county’s 25,000 limited-English speaking students.

Countywide, about half of those youngsters–94% of whom speak Spanish–get their first few years of instruction in their native language.

Three in 10 are immersed in English-only classes, with special booster classes to accelerate their language development. About 14% receive no special attention at all.

Under the new law, children who are not fluent would get about a year of special help in English before being funneled into mainstream classes.

“There’s room for all kinds of experimentation,” said Weis, an outspoken opponent of the measure. “My field is always about trying to find better ways. But my concern is massive change to an untested concept.”

Carroll, superintendent of the 2,400-student Ocean View district, is concerned about the practical details of carrying out the new law.

“Right now, we’re waiting to see what kind of guidelines come out of the state Department of Education,” she said. “We do want to meet the requirements of the law, even though I believe most voters have no idea the impact that it’s going to have when we try to implement a very unclear law.”

Elementary schoolteacher Linda Bell, who guides a class of fifth- and sixth-graders in the Hueneme School District south of Oxnard, said she believes Tuesday’s vote was as much about knocking teachers and public schools as it was about scrapping bilingual education.

“I think it’s a vote of no-confidence for the teaching profession,” said Bell, a bilingual teacher for 14 years. “I think all the measures dealing with education on the ballot were about discrediting education.”

In the one other education-related measure on the ballot, voters rejected a move aimed at limiting the administrative expenses of school districts statewide.

Seeking to funnel more money to classrooms and campuses, backers of the Educational Efficiency Initiative wanted to impose a single budget recipe on all districts statewide, allotting 95% to school campuses while placing a 5% limit on administrative costs.

But opponents countered that such an approach would force districts to shift administrative duties from central headquarters to school campuses, a move that would unfairly burden small and medium-sized districts already operating with bare-bones staff.

“I’m very happy it didn’t pass,” said Tamera McCracken, who doubles as superintendent and business manager for the 31-student Santa Clara Elementary School District, home of the Little Red Schoolhouse.

“I’ve said all along we’re already as lean as we possibly can be,” she said. “We can breathe a big sigh of relief. But I suspect there will be something else coming along next year for us to worry about.”

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