Voters Say No to Bilingual Education

Activists' lawsuits, educators' confusion could delay Prop. 227's effect

Voters Say No to Bilingual Education: Activists’ lawsuits, educators’ confusion could delay Prop. 227’s effect

After months of debates and demonstrations, voters on Tuesday struck down bilingual education programs, raising the specter of a lawsuit.

Proposition 227, approved by a 61 percent margin, requires schools to put most of the state’s 1.4 million limited-English-speaking students into an English immersion class for one year, then transition them into mainstream, English-only classes.

Prop. 227 won 60.9 percent, or 3,253,333, of the votes, while 39.1 percent or 2,091,449 voters voted against it.

Most polls before the election showed wide-ranging support among voters — including Asian Americans — even as editorial boards, educators and civil rights groups tried to change people’s minds.

Now, those groups are promising a litigation fight similar to those waged against Prop. 187 and Prop 209, which respectively sought to stem benefits to illegal immigrants and to abelish affirmative action by public entities. (The fight against 187 succeeded; efforts to topple 209 have not.) Asian American activists say Prop. 227 will affect up to 250,000 limitedEnglish-speaking students of Asian descent – -roughly 40 percent of Asian and Asian American students in California.

“The reason we have a constitution is to protect minorities against the sometimes insensitive majority,” said Gen Fujioka, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, which is also joining the lawsuit.

“To the extent that we have to go to court to get protection for people’s rights, then we will do that,” Fujioka said.

Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), which also plans to join the suit, says it’s confident that the courts will find the initiative unconstitutional. The group says Prop. 227 goes against the U.S. Suprome Court’s 1973 Lau vs. Nichols decision, which ruled that public schools had to offer students who weren’t proficient in English equal educational opportunities. Educators and lawmakers have widely interpreted the ruling as a requirement for bilingual education.

“I think the courts will look dimly on Prop. 227. It won’t be difficult for plaintiffs to show that 227 deprives limited-English-proficient kids to participate fully in schools…By throwing them into immersion programs in a one-year period without being allowed to take remedial classes afterwards, limits their abilities in school,” said Theodore Wang, CAA’s interim executive director.

School officials in the San Francisco Unified School District have voiced some of the loudest opposition against the measure and promised to diligently pursue its fight in the courts.

“This is the beginning of a struggle…but I am confident it will fail in the courts,” said Bill Rejas, San Francisco superintendent late Tuesday night. “It doesn’t meet some of the basic means test for providing equality.”

But 227’s supporters say there’s little chance the lawsuits can succeed — or that they can delay the initiative.

“The Clinton administration said on its face that there is nothing unconstitutional with our proposition. They will watch the implementation to search for civil rights violations,” said Sheri Annis, press secretary of the Educate the Children Initiative campaign. “If they stick to that, that means there won’t be any immediate lawsuits…that means you first have to start implementing the program.”

Annis said Prop. 227 is ultimately good for kids. “We expect that children, especially Latino children, will have a better chance at economic and educational opportunities in California. And the current system will be much more unifying by not segregating children based on their surnames and origin.”

Even if lawsuits don’t block 227, confusion might. Educators question whether they can implement the wide-ranging initiative by next fall, as the initiative requires.

Annis said accommodating Prop 227 should be a smooth process, given that districts were asked as early as last year to prepare.

“We have been urging school districts for the past year to write up implementation plans,” she said, adding that the L.A. public school district has already put together an 18-page outline. “So we do expect school districts to abide by law and implement the initiative.”

But educators in the San Francisco Unified School District point out that curricula needed to be set months before voters decided on Prop. 227.

“It is totally and completely unrealistic — and if anyone were going to implement it within 60 days all the children would get a devastatingly bad education,” warned Dr. Rosita Apodaca, director of the San Francisco School District Language Academy.

“We’ve already sent out the sheets for schools with the assignment of students. We have them by levels, how many first grade classes, recruiting teachers for those classrooms, offering contracts for those classrooms…And there is no standard or curriculum for whatever this one-year course is that Unz calls it.”

Advocacy groups urge districts to adopt a liberal interpretation of Prop. 227, if it does take effect.

“Prop. 227 limits the schools’ options for teaching children English…but they still have a duty that kids learn while they’re at school, and learning in all subjects accessible to kids regardless of language abilities,” Wang said.

Despite advocates’ well publicized opposition, the fact remains that there is Asian American support for the initiative-though the extent of that support is up for debate. Just last week, a Field Poll concluded that 61 percent of respondents — and the same percentage of Asian Americans — still favored the initiative. However, a recent poll conducted by the Bay Area-based Chinese American Voter Education Committee indicated that 72.8 percent of the approximately 500 Chinese Americans polled opposed the initiative.

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