English-only measure may leave wiggle room

The so-called “English-only” initiative may leave room for school districts to continue offering bilingual education, an attorney said at a Wednesday conference.

The June 2 ballot measure would severely restrict bilingual education in California if approved by voters. However, opponents could find hope by closely studying exemptions and unclear language in the initiative, said Sonia Rubio Carvalho of the Riverside-based Best Best Krieger law firm.

For example, the measure would let parents obtain waivers to place their children in bilingual education programs. Carvalho said that provision may offer an opening for school district officials who disagree with the measure’s one-year program of English immersion for pupils learning the language.

The measure does not say districts cannot solicit waivers from parents, Carvalho said.

“We can actually work within the initiative if we have to,” she said.

Carvalho’s comments came during the first day of a conference on bilingual education at the University of California, Riverside. About 60 people, mostly school administrators and board members, attended.

“Generations At Risk: The Realities and Debates of Bilingual Education” concludes today in the Commons Cafeteria. Participants may register and pay the $30-per-person fee at the door. Registration begins at 8 a.m. The program runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and includes lunch.

Conference organizers hope to offer accurate information about bilingual education, which has been criticized by some in California for failing children who are not proficient in English.

Discontent with bilingual education led Palo Alto software millionaire Ron Unz and Santa Ana teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman to spearhead “English For The Children.” The initiative would allow limited-English children about one year in English immersion classes, where “nearly all” instruction is in English taught especially for those learning the language. After that, the pupils would move to regular classrooms. Parents wanting a different method would need to obtain waivers.

Supporters say the measure would teach children English quicker and better prepare them to be successful citizens. Opponents say that some instruction in a child’s native language is necessary while teaching English to ensure that children don’t fall behind in their academic subjects.

Analyzing the measure section by section, Carvalho also pointed to a section allowing exemptions if children understand English “as measured by standardized tests.” Like much of the initiative, the wording is unclear, she said. Carvalho pondered whether districts could create their own tests that define English understanding in their own ways. That could allow pupils to get waivers and keep learning in bilingual classrooms, Carvalho said.

If the measure passes, Carvalho said, school districts will need to consult with their attorneys and decide what to do.

Conference participants also heard from Sal Villasenor, senior legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association. Villasenor, whose group opposes the measure, said it raises the question of local control of education versus state mandates on how to teach children.

“This is an example of a straitjacket, one-size-fits-all way of reforming our educational system,” Villasenor said.

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