Lobbying to Save L.A.'s Bilingual Program Draws Criticism

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 27, 1997 — While some polls show widespread opposition to existing bilingual education, Los Angeles school groups and employees are spending taxpayer dollars in a bid to keep its program intact.

In July, a top Los Angeles Unified School District administrator got up in front of a parents group and described her department’s efforts to fight a proposed initiative that would dismantle bilingual education.

Last month, the same district-financed parent group began distributing information packets to schools that criticize the initiative.

And more recently some parents were so upset that school employees had openly lobbied against the initiative that they lodged complaints.

Critics insist that these actions are improper, and the state’s educational watchdog agency says that school-financed groups and employees are prohibited by law from using their positions to advocate political issues.

“Is no one watching? Something is terribly wrong here,” said the Rev. Alice Callaghan, a community activist who supports the initiative. “When someone in that position goes to parents it appears they’re speaking for the district and they’re not — the superintendent needs to say this will not be allowed to continue.”

The author of the English for the Children Initiative, which would appear on the June ballot if enough signatures are collected, agreed that the actions of district workers were improper.

“That staff members have a vested interest in the issue makes it especially doubtful,” said Ron Unz, who wrote the initiative and ran for governor last year.

Attorneys for the Department of Education would not comment on specific cases, but said district employees or groups are not allowed to advocate for a ballot item or candidate.

“If they do that, they’re in trouble,” said Roger Wolfertz, deputy general council for the Department of Education.

The state education code states that “no school district funds, services, supplies or equipment shall be used for the purpose of http://www.latinolink.com/opinion/opinion97/1019hi1e.htm>urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate.”

Violations can result in imprisonment, a $1,000 fine or both.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles Unified School District said a strict policy is in place to guard against such activity.

“We can give out information, but not take an advocacy role,” said LAUSD spokesman Brad Sales.

However, in two instances, Sales said the district will investigate whether the policy was violated.

The Unz initiative calls for most non-English speaking children to be placed in a short-term program to build English fluency and then transferred into a regular classroom.

Unz charges that bilingual education in California is a failure. He cites Department of Education statistics that 95 percent of the state’s bilingual students do not learn English each year.

Supporters of existing bilingual programs disagree.

“Everything Unz is saying is entirely a blatant lie,” said Carmen Schroeder, assistant superintendent for the language acquisition branch, which operates the bilingual program.

She points to statistics that show each year increasingly more LAUSD children become fluent English speakers. And students who graduate from bilingual programs in the LAUSD score higher on standardized tests than the district norm, she said.

The topic has been the subject of intense debate: There are plenty of opinions about whether bilingual education is the best way to teach children English.

But no one disputes that the program is big business for the LAUSD — the district receives millions in state and federal funds to maintain the program. So it comes as no surprise to critics that intense lobbying is being waged — even before the initiative is approved for a statewide vote and the Los Angeles Board of Education takes a position.

“I expected them to come out fighting as hard as they can,” Callaghan said of bilingual supporters. “They’re not interested in parents’ opinions, just their own vested interests. They don’t want to relinquish that money.”

Supporters of bilingual education reject accusations that the district is concerned mostly with preserving state and federal grants. They said they have to defend the program against an onslaught of inaccurate information and racially motivated scapegoating.

“This initiative is deceptive, it eliminates a lot of services mandated by state and federal law,” said John Fernandez, director of the district’s Mexican-American Education Commission. “It blames bilingual problems for all of education’s problems and seeks to divide the Latino community.”

Legal prohibitions on exactly what district employees can say has made it difficult at times to defend the bilingual programs, according to supporters.

Schroeder insisted in an interview that her staff is neutral on the initiative — as required by law.

In July, however, Gloria Cox, administrator for language acquisition, appeared before a parents group and outlined the district’s “efforts in opposing the initiative,” according to July 23 minutes of the District Bilingual-Bicultural Advisory Committee.

Sales said Friday that Cox denied making those remarks, and the minutes “misrepresented” what was said at the meeting.

“All that was presented was some information on the Unz initiative,” Sales said. “There is no effort under way, nor should there be, to negatively portray this initiative.”

Sales said Cox will ask for the minutes to be corrected.

Some parents have taken notice of the district’s advocacy on the initiative — and lodged complaints.

“They said members of Carmen Schroeder’s staff, at parent presentations, have gone ‘off the record’ and taken a position in opposition to the Unz initiative,” said Robert Edwards, who is chairman of a subcommittee of the Parent Community Services Parent Collaborative and received the complaints.

Sales said he is not aware that the complaints were forwarded to the district, but that he would investigate the claims.

From its offices located in bungalows at the foot of the LAUSD headquarters, the District Bilingual-Bicultural Advisory Committee works to involve more parents in the educational process.

Funded with $1.1 million from the state, the group is charged with monitoring the bilingual program, advising the district and informing parents.

At a summer meeting of nearly 400 bilingual parent representatives >from throughout the city, the group voted unanimously to oppose the Unz initiative, said Gabriel Medal, vice chairman of the advisory committee.

He believes that most parents support bilingual education, or would if they had more information. Medal dismisses a recent newspaper poll that shows 84 percent of Latino parents support dismantling bilingual education. P>”I don’t trust that poll, it all depends how you ask the question,” Medal said.

However, a poll by the Center for Equal Opportunity taken in 1996 showed more than 81 percent of Latino parents believed their children should be taught in English. The Washington, D.C., group polled 600 parents in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, San Antonio and Houston.

And a Daily News Line question, “Do you think bilingual education is a good idea for California?” showed that of the 2,670 responses, 97 percent believed it was not.

Since the summer meeting, Medal’s group decided to distribute a Spanish translation of the Unz initiative to schools for distribution throughout the city.

Also included is a page in Spanish criticizing the initiative and calling for the Board of Education to oppose it.

“We say what we feel about it and why we think (the initiative) is not good,” Medal said. “Our opinion is that it’s going to damage the services the (bilingual) program is supposed to provide. We don’t believe any child in the world can learn a language in one year.”

The parent letter states, in part, that the Unz initiative would “eliminate the right for parents to choose,” “weakens the local PTAs” and “hurts children.”

The parent letter calls for the board to take an official stand opposing the initiative. Medal said the committee also has lobbied board members.

The group has consulted with an attorney and has been told “how far it can go,” Medal said.

On Friday, Jennie Huizar, the full-time district employee paid to act as the committee’s staff member, said she “knew nothing” about the parent letter.

And Medal, whose position as committee vice chairman is unpaid, agreed that staff members did not participate in the letter to parents. “Members of the staff had no knowledge of this,” Medal said.

The state’s Wolfertz said parent groups supported by a school district are barred from advocating to the public a position on a political issue.

“Parent volunteers supported by district funds and equipment are part of the school district,” Wolfertz said. “It’s as if it’s the school district is doing it.”

LAUSD’s Sales said the district will look into whether parents outside of the group received the letter.

“If it’s simply communicating with its members the advice it’s giving to the board, it probably complies with district policy,” Sales said. “If it was handed out indiscriminately, it may not fit district policy.”

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