Gilroy schools are violating Proposition 227, said the law’s author, which means school board members and the superintendent could be sued for damages by parents.
Trustees voted unanimously in August to teach non-English-speaking students 60 percent in English and 40 percent in Spanish as they phased out bilingual programs to comply with the new law.
But Proposition 227 author Ron Unz said Friday that the law’s actual wording stipulates that classroom instruction for non-English-speaking students — those enrolled in “sheltered English immersion” programs — must be conducted “nearly all” in English.
Sixty percent does not come close to complying, Unz said Friday when told of the Gilroy policy. He said his office had received calls from parents asking about it.
“It’s completely illegal,” Unz said. “?`Nearly all’ could mean 98 percent or 99 percent or even 97 percent, but it does not mean 60 percent. The law is very clear and the district seems to be ignoring the law,” he said.
Die-hard supporters of bilingual education have lost most of the legal battles and now are “grasping at straws” to maintain such programs, he said.
May revisit issue
At least two Gilroy school board members Friday said they now believe they may have been misled by staff reports and may ask that the board revisit the issue. The board took its August action without seeking legal advice, said trustee Patricia Blomquist.
“This was by no means an act of defiance,” she said. “If we blew it, we’d better review the issue and pull back.”
However, Gilroy schools Superintendent David Alvarez defended the district policy Friday, insisting several times that it is in “complete” compliance with state regulations and Proposition 227.
Asked what regulations he was referring to, Alvarez conceded he is unfamiliar with all the particulars of the laws and referred questions to the district’s Proposition 227 expert, David Pribyl. But Pribyl declined to comment before he could do more research on the law.
Rae Belisle, legal counsel to the state Board of Education, said Friday that regulations adopted by the board to help districts implement Proposition 227 do not discuss percentages of time in which instruction in English must be given. Instead, the regulations use the term “nearly all,” the same language contained in the initiative.
In Gilroy, school trustees said they depended upon information supplied by Alvarez and Pribyl when debating how to comply with the law and settled on a 60-40 ratio for students learning English.
Several trustees said Pribyl used the term “overwhelmingly” to describe how much instruction must be in English but never mentioned the “nearly all” standard.
“This is the first time I have heard `nearly all,’?” Trustee Mark Good said Friday. He conceded he may not have read Proposition 227 carefully. “I will be e-mailing the superintendent to ask what the hell is going on.”
The term “overwhelmingly” appears in the initiative in the definition of the amount of English to be used in an “English language classroom,” and is not related to the “nearly all” standard mandated for “sheltered English immersion” programs for students learning the English language, Unz said.
Too many school officials mistakenly believe if instruction of non-English speakers is “overwhelmingly” in English, they are in compliance. But for those students, Unz said, the higher standard of “nearly all” is clearly stated.
“I just can’t imagine that they could have gotten that mixed up,” he said.
If school officials don’t comply with that fact quickly, Unz said, many district officials could be faced with “serious” legal problems if parents were to successfully sue them for failure to implement Proposition 227, he said.
Good and others said the situation outlined by Unz is not the way things were reported to the board by the administration during their August debate on how to implement 227.
“We were led to believe that 60-40 was in compliance; we would not have done it if we thought it wasn’t,” said Blomquist.
“We did not comment on the legality of it other than to say that the state Board of Education had left it up to local boards to interpret it, with no guidelines at all,” Pribyl said, adding that it was the trustees themselves who came up with those percentages.
The administration told trustees that the 60-40 split “would be totally appropriate,” he said.
Several school board members also said they were made to feel more comfortable with the 60-40 idea when Pribyl reported that the same approach had been implemented by other districts. However, Good said he would not have voted for the policy if he believed that the Proposition 227 standard was in fact “nearly all” rather than the lesser standard, “overwhelmingly.”
If Unz turns out to be right, he said, he will demand that the entire issue be revisited by the board to ensure the district’s policies are legally sound.
School board President Kim Merrill said Friday that he was and remains convinced that the board acted properly.
“I am not saying we are 100 percent right on this thing; I think we are on solid ground,” he said.
Because the board did not defend its policy, and because board members and school officials can be held personally liable for violations of the law, Belisle said, “This is serious business.”
Meanwhile, Unz said that his organization, English for the Children, is prepared to assist parents who sue school board members around the state. He did not know if Gilroy would be targeted.
Under the new law, school board members and district officials can be held personally liable for damages if sued successfully by parents, meaning no taxpayer money can be used either in their defense or to pay judgments, Unz said.