Prop. 227 Foes Vow to Block It Despite Wide Vote Margin

Schools: Suit by civil rights groups aims to head off end to bilingual education. Meanwhile, state officials rule out waivers sought by eight districts.

Undeterred by the large margin of victory for Proposition 227, opponents of the ballot measure designed to dismantle bilingual education moved Wednesday to block it in both the courts and the classroom.

Even as a coalition of civil rights groups filed a federal court lawsuit, another hoped-for avenue of relief from Proposition 227 was closed down when State Board of Education officials said requests for exemptions from the law would be rejected.

Eight school districts–including those in Oakland, Fresno and San Jose–have filed papers seeking a waiver from the proposition’s requirement that, after one year in English immersion programs, most children must be taught almost entirely in English.

But the state school board’s attorney has advised it that it is powerless to grant those waivers. “We will be strongly discouraging the board from looking at waivers at all,” said Bill Lucia, executive director of the board.

Meanwhile, as school administrators were trying to sort out what it would take to comply with the law, which takes effect in 60 days, as many as 1,500 Los Angeles teachers said they were prepared to commit the equivalent of educational civil disobedience if necessary.

The initiative “forces us to be saboteurs,” said Arturo Selva, a veteran first-grade teacher at Bridge Street School in East Los Angeles. “The bottom line is, are we going to be here for the children or not? Once you close your door, people who don’t believe in English-only are going to sabotage it.”

Not all teachers opposed the initiative, of course. In Los Angeles, for example, 48% of 20,000 teachers voted earlier this year for a union resolution in favor of 227.

Doug Lasken, a fifth-grade teacher at Ramona Avenue School in Los Angeles, who was among the measure’s most vocal proponents, said Wednesday the chaotic aftermath of the vote that some are predicting can be avoided.

“It’s unfortunate that we had to go through the initiative process to get this,” Lasken said. “But it wouldn’t have happened had anybody within the educational community–including teachers unions and school districts–been capable of reforming this badly functioning program.”

Defendants in Suit

The state school board is named, along with Gov. Pete Wilson and state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, as a defendant in the lawsuit filed by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Council of la Raza, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the American Civil Liberties Union and groups representing Asian Americans. It seeks an immediate injunction to block implementation of the proposition, which would take effect in time for the start of school in September.

The coalition filed its challenge in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, claiming that the terms of the initiative violate the civil rights of 1.4 million California children who are not fluent in English.

The lawsuit will be heard by federal Judge Charles A. Legge, a moderate Republican appointed to the bench in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan. It alleges that Proposition 227 violates federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Eastin opposes the proposition but issued a statement vowing to carry it out. State Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, who as a candidate for governor opposed Proposition 227, will have to defend it in court.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who wrote the initiative and spent heavily to see it passed, said a team of private lawyers, whom he declined to name, also is ready to defend the lawsuit on a pro bono basis.

The proposition was opposed by President Clinton, all four candidates for governor, the leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties and almost every education organization in the state.

Yet it still won big, with 61% of the votes cast, making it one of the most popular contested initiatives in the state’s history.

The proposition did particularly well among Republican voters, 77% of whom backed it, according to a Times exit poll. Only 47% of Democrats sided with the measure. It was opposed by voters who considered themselves liberals, and by blacks and Latinos. But white and Asian voters were in favor, as were older voters, the exit polling showed.

“What it means is that the people of California very strongly believe that children should be taught English when they come to school, and that overcame the opposition,” said an ebullient Unz.

About 1.4 million of California’s 5.6 million school children are not fluent in English. About a third of them are taught using their primary language to build conceptual knowledge in subjects such as math and history while moving them toward fluency in English. But some become stuck in such bilingual classes and never develop the linguistic skills needed to succeed academically.

Unz said he was confident that the legal challenges to Proposition 227 would be rebuffed and that “this marks the beginning of the end of bilingual education in the United States.”

On Wednesday, however, educators pondered the massive changes that will be required to switch the state’s educational system to a new track. Everything from purchasing the proper textbooks–if they are available–to retraining teachers must be tackled. Educators say they are still figuring out how much explanation teachers can offer in languages other than English.

“We have parent conferences in Spanish. I send out a weekly bulletin in English and Spanish. Will I still be able to do that ?” asked Gloria Gutierrez Delaney, principal of Pasadena’s Madison Elementary School.

San Francisco’s Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to continue bilingual programs and to join any legal action to overturn the proposition. “It’s an absurd measure which has no educational basis and would set our students back 30 years,” said board President Carlota del Portillo.

Carl Cohn, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, said he is adopting a wait-and-see posture but intends to comply if the initiative passes judicial review.

“We recognize that the voters have sent us, the educational establishment, a real clear message about the importance of English,” Cohn said.

Despite the 60-day deadline in the initiative, Cohn said that implementing a change of such magnitude would require a year. Training teachers and involving parents so they understand and support the changes would be the most time-consuming, he said.

Proposition 227 allows parents to request that their children receive bilingual instruction. It even allows schools to recommend that students need more assistance before being transferred into mainstream classes. But school districts will have to work out procedures for making such decisions.

L.A. Contingency Plan

The Los Angeles Unified School District had developed a contingency plan that contemplated such possibilities as busing children whose parents want them in bilingual classes to new campuses, transferring teachers who are untrained to teach children not fluent in English and even adding a year of schooling to make up for the one year during which students will be concentrating solely on learning in English.

But Supt. Ruben Zacarias issued a statement directing staff members “not to change any procedures or methods of instruction” until further notice.

Zacarias acknowledged the passionate pro-bilingual feelings of many teachers, feelings that were on display at a news conference at district headquarters by an ad hoc teachers group calling itself On Campus.

Organizer Steve Zimmer, who teaches English as a second language at Marshall High School, said the organization has 1,500 pledges to defy the initiative from teachers in five districts. But he said the organization does not assume that every teacher who signed will commit civil disobedience.

Selva, the Bridge Street teacher, said he thought the measure would have failed had there been more time to explain its problems. Selva said he is now left to contemplate an uncertain future.

“227 will wipe me out completely . . . I will be a casualty,” he said.

Unlike the stereotype of bilingual classrooms, Selva said, he uses as much English as possible, as soon as children understand the concepts. That has made the students voracious readers, so much so that as soon as they come back from recess they race to a big box of books to sneak in a few sentences before Selva starts the next lesson.

A chubby math whiz named Steven is a case in point, Selva said. For a visitor, he read fluently and with perfect expression a story about a sea serpent and his daughter–first in English and then in Spanish.

The reason, Selva said, is that he has taught them using all the tools available, including their native tongue.

“If we have English only,” he said, “it’s going to squash all this progress.”

Times staff writers Peter Hong and Jim Newton contributed to this story.



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