Schools Try to Resist Bilingual Law

Waiver request, suits or civil disobedience

Less than a week after voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to outlaw bilingual education in California schools, Bay Area districts are already coming up with creative ways of getting around the new law. Calling Proposition 227 educationally unsound and even immoral, Bay Area districts responsible for educating thousands of non-English-speaking children have come up with these ideas:

— Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose districts want the state Board of Education to invent a waiver so they can avoid implementing English-only classes.

— San Jose educators say that if the waiver idea doesn’t wash, they may join in the lawsuit filed Wednesday by civil rights groups trying to block the law, or resort to litigation of their own.

— West Contra Costa schools are operating under the assumption that federal loopholes will save them from having to drop their bilingual education programs.

— San Francisco schools are going the route of civil disobedience and are refusing to comply — period. A notice sent home with San Francisco students Thursday puts it plainly: “S.F. Schools to Maintain Bilingual Programs.” The notice is also posted on the district’s Web site. “Parents in San Francisco schools are clamoring for more bilingual and language immersion programs,” Superintendent Bill Rojas wrote in the message to parents. “It is our responsibility as educators to prevent bad policy from wreaking havoc on our instructional programs.” Earlier this week, Rojas said he would rather go to jail than implement what he called an “offensive” and “immoral” law. Proposition 227 gives schools 60 days to develop a yearlong English-only program in which children are grouped by their knowledge of English, instead of their grade level or language background. Children are to spend one school year learning the language, after which they will join the regular school program. Teachers, school administrators and elected officials can be sued and held personally liable if they do not comply with the provisions of Proposition 227. “Supporters of bilingual education are extraordinarily stubborn,” said businessman Ron Unz, the measure’s author. “But they can behave as illegally as they want — that’s why we put the legal liability provision in. We expected a certain number (of districts) to repeatedly and willfully violate the law.” Educators in West Contra Costa, a district where one in four students speaks little English, say federal law is on their side, even if state law is not. The district has a 4-year-old agreement with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education to teach such children academics in their primary language. “We are not making any plans to change our current educational model,” said Susan Dunlap, a bilingual education administrator in the West County Unified School District. “Our superintendent, Herbert Cole, is saying that federal law supersedes state law at this poin

opposed Proposition 227, says there may be merit in that argument. She has convened a task force to look at possible conflicts between state and federal laws and to offer advice to districts within the next few weeks. Another strategy, the state waiver being looked at by Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose and some smaller districts, may carry less weight in the long run. “We don’t believe that blanket waivers are allowed,” said Bill Lucia, spokesman for the state Board of Education, which sets school policy for California’s 5.6 million students. At least one large Bay Area district, Mount Diablo Unified in Contra Costa, is developing a “contingency plan” to offer the new English lessons if the courts order them to proceed. An administrator for the district, which has 3,700 students who speak little English, said developing the program will be difficult because children who are in different grades but have the same level of English must be taught together under the new law. “Social studies curriculum for fourth grade is California history,” said Linda Rondeaux, bilingual education director for the district. “If I teach that, what do I do with social studies for the third grade? What about fifth-graders, who are supposed to have U.S. history? “And what about math? This is like an onion — we peel layer after layer, and keep discovering another challenge.” Even the Orange County school district says the new law is difficult to administer. It was among just five districts to challenge the previous bilingual education requirement, out of 1,000 districts statewide. Orange County abolished bilingual education last year but held on to some primary language classroom help for its 7,300 immigrant students. Under Proposition 227, that program would have to be replaced. “I don’t agree with Unz,” said Assistant Superintendent Neil McKinnon. “I think it’s too restrictive, actually. It’s too bad.”

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