OCEANSIDE — In response to Proposition 227, Spanish has virtually disappeared from the walls of classrooms and the lips of teachers in Oceanside.

Yet in Vista, many Spanish-speaking children continue to learn in their native language despite California voters’ passage of the measure banning most bilingual education.

Widely varying interpretations of Proposition 227 have resulted in different plans for its implementation.

In Oceanside, for example, the proposition’s mandate that instruction be “overwhelmingly” in English means that teachers must speak in English 98 percent of the time. In Vista, overwhelmingly means 70 percent.

The most dramatic differences result from superintendents’ and principals’ reading of a clause in Proposition 227 that provides for parental exception waivers, forms parents can sign to exempt their children from instruction mostly in English.

These waivers have kept bilingual education programs thriving throughout the county.

In Vista, preliminary figures show that of the 1,449 English-language learners, 1,006 — which is 69 percent of the students on three year-round tracks — had parental exception waivers that returned them to bilingual education after a mandatory 30-day period of English-only instruction. In Oceanside, Deputy Superintendent Carol Dillard said, “I’m not aware of any parent request for waivers for a bilingual program.”

The difference isn’t just district to district.

At Knox Elementary School in the San Diego Unified School District, only four parents of the hundreds of English-language learners have signed waivers, Principal Carol Waldron said.

Meanwhile, at San Diego’s Central Elementary, students whose parents signed waivers filled 23 classrooms, and only 11 parents wanted their children to continue mostly English instruction.

State Department of Education spokesman Doug Stone said the state has issued emergency regulations to school districts scrambling to figure out how to implement Proposition 227.

However, he said, the state has allowed flexibility in how each of California’s 996 public school districts implements the law, and this week the state board adopted rules that make it easier for parents to keep their children out of English-only classes.

San Diego Unified and 37 other school districts have applied to the state Board of Education for blanket waivers that would exempt them from Proposition 227 altogether and, under the recently approved rules, waivers will be granted unless school officials decide that bilingual classes would be more harmful than immersion.

Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for English for the Children, the group that sponsored Proposition 227 and has taken upon itself the role of monitoring its implementation, said the disparity among districts shows that some school districts are following the law while others are not. The organization has a hotline for reporting violations. Annis said several Vista parents have called, accusing educators there of urging parents to choose bilingual education for their children despite a prohibition on such advocacy.

“We’re taking everybody’s complaints, and we’re deciding where and when we’ll take legal action to enforce implementation,” Annis said. “Districts such as Vista who are blatantly trying to get around the law are very high on our radar screen.”

In the meantime, the more than one in five county public school students classified as English-language learners, most of whom speak Spanish, are learning in a mixture of Spanish and English — depending on what school district they live in.

Not in Spanish

In Room 2 at Ditmar Elementary School in Oceanside, the first-graders don’t yet speak English fluently. Teacher Angelica Shanta is a native of Mexicali, but she isn’t allowed to teach in Spanish because in Oceanside 98 percent English is the standard.

They plod through spelling with sounds tied to verbal cues. For example, ‘n’ is pinching the nose, and ‘c’ is mimicking the clicking of a camera. The children still speak to each other in Spanish sometimes. But when one student accused another of copying her work by telling Shanta, “esta copiando,” Shanta replied in English: “It’s OK. She’s learning.” Ditmar Principal Sherry Freeman de Leyva has observed the first month of sheltered immersion at her school and said, “The kids are getting it.” Oceanside didn’t want to do it this way. As the founding president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators and a man of Mexican descent, Oceanside Superintendent Ken Noonan voted against 227. “It jolted me. I read that bill. I read it over and over and over again with an eye toward trying to salvage the bilingual program,” Noonan said. “I couldn’t find language in the bill that in any way gave us leeway to do that.”

Other school districts’ leaders have — in the parental exception waivers. Bilingual education’s supporters say the high rate of waivers in some districts reflects the past success of bilingual programs.

Annis said, though, that the number of parents who choose waivers appears to be linked to how they receive information about Proposition 227. The way the law is written, Annis said, mostly English instruction is the default position. If parents do nothing, in other words, their children go into mostly English classes. Parents would have to go to their child’s school and sign a waiver to put a student back into bilingual instruction. Noonan mailed parents a pamphlet explaining that under Proposition 227, their children would get mostly English instruction. It also explains that parents must visit their child’s school to request an alternative program, though it doesn’t specify that the alternative could be bilingual education.

Handed a waiver form

In Vista, parents who attended Proposition 227 meetings were handed parent choice waiver forms. That form asks parents to choose from three options: structured English immersion (in which nearly all instruction is in English, but with curriculum and teaching designed for English-language learners), English-only classes, or bilingual education. Not only that, but the districts differ on how they interpret the special circumstances under which waivers may be granted under Proposition 227. The circumstances include physical, emotional, psychological and educational needs.

In Oceanside, the parent must demonstrate that a child has one of those needs. In Vista, school principals and teachers check off a reason on the parent choice waiver forms.

Marsha Logsdon, principal of Olive Elementary School in Vista, said teachers and administrators there are likely to cite limited English ability as an educational concern.

Without citing any specific districts, Noonan said he believes some of his colleagues are using the waiver clause to get around the proposition’s intent.

“Anyone who reads in there (the proposition) some way to preserve bilingual education is dyslexic, because it’s not there,” Noonan said. Linda Buffington, principal of Burbank Elementary School in San Diego, said it is the parents, not the schools, that are choosing bilingual education. Were never asked

That 80 percent of parents of English learners at her school signed waivers did not surprise her. They have always supported bilingual education, she said, but before this year they were never asked.

Vista educators insist they are not flouting the law, just giving parents choices.

Logsdon, the principal at Olive, said she explained the options to parents at school meetings and let them decide.

“They would ask me point-blank, ‘What should I do?’ and I would make sure I said point-blank, ‘I can’t tell you what to do,’ ” Logsdon said.

Ramon Guerrero chose structured immersion for his kindergartner at Olive. The school told him the class for kindergartners was at its limit under class-size reduction rules and his son would have to be bused to a different school, so Guerrero decided to keep him in a bilingual class at Olive.

Guerrero said he thinks keeping the same teacher is more important than the language of instruction in kindergarten, but next year he wants his son to be taught more in English.

“At least there is a choice this time,” Guerrero said. “Before, you go with the system and they put your kid wherever they think it’s good for him.”

One of Guerrero’s children went through a bilingual education program, and he never questioned the placement. He sees the waiver form that Vista schools have distributed as an empowering choice made possible by the new law.

Guerrero said, “I feel that the person that did Proposition 227 didn’t want to help us, but they did.”

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