Language blurs Prop. 227

Californians haven't heard last word on bilingual bill

Just because voters approved an initiative Tuesday that effectively ends bilingual education, don’t expect Ventura County schools to immediately chuck their Spanish textbooks and draw up new lesson plans.

In the wake of Proposition 227’s passage, the mood across local school districts Wednesday was one of wait and see.

As Cliff Rodrigues, the county’s bilingual education director, put it: “Don’t abandon ship at this point, because we don’t even know where the ship is going.”

The initiative by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz passed with 61 percent of the vote. It requires that public school instruction be conducted “overwhelmingly” in English. Children with limited English skills have about a year to learn the language before being placed in English classrooms. In limited cases, parents can request waivers.

The initiative gives school districts 60 days to comply. But instead of scrambling on Wednesday, school leaders said they’re waiting to see what the state Department of Education tells them to do, and whether anyone files a lawsuit against the initiative.

“A few days one way or another isn’t going to make much of a difference,” said Jane Kampbell, assistant superintendent of the Fillmore Unified School District. “There’s no point in going off willy-nilly.”

Sure enough, on Wednesday the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund announced that a coalition of civil rights and community organizations has filed a lawsuit.

And state Superintendent Delaine Eastin said her office will offer some guidance to school districts in the next few weeks. A team will review the initiative and create a plan to help districts comply.

Statewide, 1.4 million children are classified as “limited-English proficient.” Fewer than a third receive instruction in their native language.

In Ventura County, where one in five children are learning English, no two school districts teach them in quite the same way. The method used depends upon a mixture of educational philosophy, demographics and logistics.

In most eastern Ventura County districts, where there are relatively few limited-English students, the effects of Proposition 227 will be minimal. That’s because most schools, including those in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, already teach limited-English students in English while providing extra help.

“I think we might have to make some modifications, but I don’t think it will have the same implications for us as it will in other districts,” said Ken Moffett, interim superintendent of the Simi Valley Unified School District, where 6 percent of students are learning English.

Districts in western Ventura County, including Oxnard, Fillmore and Santa Paula, will be harder hit. Up to half of all students in those districts are learning English, and most speak Spanish. The majority of schools use transitional bilingual education, teaching students academic subjects in their native language while gradually building English skills.

It’s that kind of instruction Unz has sought to eliminate.

Local educators say they have too many unanswered questions to start dismantling their programs: Just how flexible are the waivers? Does the Unz initiative conflict with federal law? How do you define “overwhelmingly” English instruction?

“The Unz initiative is a little bit vague on some of these,” said Joseph Spirito, superintendent of the Ventura Unified School District. “You have to wait and sift it all out.”

But Unz said Wednesday those districts that haven’t started figuring how to comply with his initiative should know better.

“They’re burying their heads in the sand. This is the law in California,” Unz said. “What they should have been doing over the last eight months was drafting contingency plans.”

At least one local district, Oxnard Elementary, has done just that. The district has written a 30-day lesson plan that uses English instead of Spanish instruction.

Stephanie Purdy, the district’s English language development manager, predicts that many parents will ask for waivers so their children can stay in bilingual programs. It’s the children who go right into English classrooms she worries about.

“If they don’t understand an academic concept in English, our hands are tied and we can’t teach them in Spanish,” Purdy said.

In Moorpark Unified, the only east county district to offer a comprehensive bilingual program, administrators said they will spend this summer trying to figure out how they can meet the letter of the law but still teach children in the way they think is best.

“I have to abide by the law, but it’s going to break my heart,” said Diana Guerrero, who teaches a bilingual third-grade class at Peach Hill School in Moorpark. “I’m hoping it will be declared unconstitutional. I’m not saying bilingual education is perfect. It’s not. But this isn’t the right way to do it.”

The initiative means almost no changes for Conejo Valley schools, which essentially have no bilingual programs now.

It will also have little financial impact because almost all the books the district buys are in English. The district also plans to keep its bilingual aides, who help students still learning English.

Though his district won’t be affected much, Assistant Superintendent Richard Simpson had some strong words of advice for the districts that will.

“It has passed,” he said, “and now you can either gamble on an injunction or you start scrambling.”

In Ventura County, 66 percent of voters supported Proposition 227, several points higher than the state average. Voters in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley were its strongest supporters, with more than 70 percent saying yes.

Voters in Oxnard, Fillmore and Santa Paula rejected the initiative, based upon a precinct analysis.

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