Schools Still in Limbo on 227

L.A. scrambles to comply, S.F. digs in heels after judge refuses to block measure

Educators who looked to the voters and then the courts to strike down Proposition 227 have themselves struck out twice–and with the new school year barely a month away, few have concrete plans for implementing the bilingual-education ban.

With the education of 1.4 million limited-English-speaking students at stake, school districts are convening locally and with state school board members to determine either how to put the measure into effect or how to continue defying it legally. U.S. District Judge Charles Legge’s refusal this month to delay the measure means that as of Aug. 2, all California school districts–with few exceptions–must teach academic subjects only in English and must replace bilingual-ed programs with a year of English immersion.

Legge’s ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by advocacy groups, which charged that the initiative unconstitutionally prohibited children from receiving equal opportunities to education. The suit called for a preliminary injunction that would have delayed Prop. 227, approved June 2 by 61 percent of California voters, until after the court had heard the plaintiffs’ arguments.

Now, some opponents see an appeal as their next best hope. “We are 99.9 percent sure we’re going to make an appeal and ask the court to prevent 227 from going into effect until the appellate court can hear an appeal on the judge’s decision,” said Edward Chen, a staff attorney for the ACLU in Northern California. Meanwhile, San Francisco schools superintendent Bill Rojas maintains he will not implement 227, because the district is legally exempt from the law under a 1975 consent decree.

Other districts are trying to accommodate the new law. In Los Angeles, Superintendent Ruben Zacharias called an emergency staff meeting after the ruling to discuss ways to transition from bilingual education programs to English-only classes.

The Los Angeles Unified Board of Education is to decide this week on how to implement Prop. 227, and board member George Kiriyama predicted that “ESL teaching techniques will be a primary force in the implementation.” English as a Second Language programs typically use English-based instruction with limited assistance in students’ primary language.

Though Los Angeles schools are on hold pending the board’s decision, they know they’ll have to act fast after that. “Basically, we’re waiting to hear a directive from the district, but we are expecting to have to implement something beginning in the fall,” said Rosa Eshaq, assistant principal of Castelar Elementary School, which had taught Chinese-speaking bilingual-ed students in both English and Chinese. Other limited-English-speaking children, including Spanish and Vietnamese speakers, were taught in English but received assistance from aides who spoke their primary language. Although teachers and students say the system has worked well for years for the Chinatown school, they doubt they can maintain it under Prop. 227.

In San Francisco, where nearly 20,000 of the district’s 63,500 students speak little English, Rojas and other officials expressed fewer worries. They say the district operates under a federal consent decree that protects its programs.

That decree, they say, resulted from the landmark 1974 Lau vs. Nichols case, which went to the Supreme Court. In the case, which was brought by Chinese Americans, the high court ruled that public schools must offer limited-English-speaking students equal educational opportunities. The district and the U.S. District Court hammered out a master implementation plan of bilingual and bicultural instruction, including English immersion, English as a second language, and instruction of academic subjects in children’s native tongues.

School officials say the federal consent decree outweighs any state legislation, including Prop. 227. “They may say we’re in defiance, but we’re complying with a federal court order, which is the Lau decision,” said Sandina Robbins, a district spokeswoman.

Robbins added that if parents requested a one-year immersion English class, they would offer it alongside the existing programs. “If any parent felt we weren’t doing exactly what 227 calls for, than we can do that, too,” she said. “We can create a class with children ranging from 5 to 10 years old, and we can throw them all into one room for one year.” (Although Prop. 227 allows for age-mixing in English immersion classrooms, it does not mandate that practice.)

The Oakland Unified School District, with roughly 18,000 students with limited English skills, also hopes for a federal pre-emption from Prop. 227. The district argues that its bilingual education programs, which resulted largely from its 1994 compliance agreement with the federal Office of Civil Rights, are still legally sound.

“We’re basically keeping all of our options open,” said Oakland district spokeswoman Sue Piper, adding that no matter what happens, the district will fight to keep bilingual-ed programs for families who want them. Under Prop. 227, parents can seek waivers if their child is 10 or older, already knows English, or has special needs.

“If we run out of time, we will work with parents, we’ll send out letters, and hold outreach meetings–and we’ll facilitate parents getting those personal waivers,” Piper said. “We know that this will be intimidating to parents, and we want to make it as easy for them as possible.”

The court’s refusal to block 227 came as educators revealed that students who completed bilingual-ed programs in San Francisco and San Jose had largely outperformed native-English speakers on the language and math sections of the state’s multiple-choice Standardized Testing and Reporting exam. “When we looked only at English-speaking students, among those are students graduating from bilingual education programs, and they did very well and they did better than the English-speaking students,” Piper said. “To us, that says bilingual education works.”

However, Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who spearheaded Prop. 227, disagrees, and he has pointed out that the scores include only those bilingual-ed students who have mastered English. Thousands of test scores from limited-English speakers have not been released due to a Superior Court injunction sought by Oakland and Berkeley schools, which said the test was invalid for students who could not understand the questions.

Still, Eshaq and others stressed that the tests show bilingual education brings results. “The fact that kids in these programs score well on tests is something that no one looks at,” said Eshaq. “Everyone sees the whole issue as so emotional. ‘Oh they’re only being taught in Spanish,’ or ‘Oh, they’re only being taught in Armenian,’ No one looks at the end result. It’s something they choose to ignore.”

Staff writer Stacy Lavilla reported from San Francisco, and contributor Mika Tanner reported from Los Angeles.

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