SACRAMENTO — It’s commonly said that Proposition 227 on Tuesday’s statewide ballot would end most bilingual education programs.

But would it?

As the initiative continues to hold a commanding lead in the polls, school districts are taking a close look at a built-in waiver process while they begin thinking about how the measure would be implemented.

The initiative requires that all of the children in California public schools who speak limited English, about 1.4 million students, be quickly taught English in “sheltered immersion” programs normally lasting about a year.

However, under what some think may turn out to be a broad and flexible provision, the initiative allows waivers of the English immersion requirement for children who have “special physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs.”

The special needs are not defined. But the initiative makes it clear that waivers allow bilingual education, in which students are taught in their native language for up to seven years while studying English for a varying period each day.

Conservative opponents of the initiative, who want to end all bilingual education, contend that the special-needs waiver is an obvious loophole that will allow school districts to continue bilingual education if parents sign waivers.

“A child who doesn’t speak English of course has special needs, and any child with that can demand bilingual education,” said Terry Graham, a conservative activist in Sacramento.

But another group of opponents, many bilingual education teachers, agree with the conventional view that the initiative sponsored by businessman Ron Unz will end most bilingual education programs.

“The waiver process will not address the needs of a large majority of parents who are actively seeking to have their children in those (bilingual education) programs,” said Maria Quezada, president of the California Association for Bilingual Education.

The initiative, should it win, will have a short start-up period, applying the new rules to school terms that begin 60 days after the election. One or more legal challenges are being prepared, and opponents are expected to seek a court order blocking the initiative while its constitutionality is litigated.

“It’s going to be a hard legal challenge,” predicted Erwin Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California law professor. “A lot depends on how it’s presented in court and who the judge is.”

Dual strategy

Some think opponents of Proposition 227 may use a two-pronged strategy, similar to the battle against a new law that requires all students to take an annual statewide achievement test even if they don’t speak English.

The San Francisco Unified School District obtained a court order blocking the test for non-English speakers. The Los Angeles Unified School District did not give the test to thousands of children who speak limited English after their parents requested waivers. The San Diego Unified School District reluctantly agreed to give the test, under the condition that the state report the results of limited-English students separately.

Among the school districts looking at the waiver provision in Proposition 227 is the Sweetwater Union High School District, which draws students from the Chula Vista, San Ysidro, South Bay and National City elementary districts.

“We have been talking to parent groups, and the parents are saying, ‘Yes, they will sign the waiver,’?” said Alma Pirazzini, Sweetwater bilingual education director.

The Chula Vista Elementary School District, whose board is committed to a policy of multiple languages for all students, has been working with other districts to draft a waiver form for parents.

“We are starting to put something together, should it pass,” said Dennis Doyle, Chula Vista assistant superintendent. “We need to move forward with having some vehicle ready for parents.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District has prepared an 18-page draft of a contingency plan for implementing Proposition 227. The plan mentions the waiver process but does not say how a special-needs waiver would work.

“We have no way of knowing,” said Tony Marsnik, Los Angeles Unified language acquisition coordinator. “That is one of the tasks that is left to do.”

At the San Diego Unified School District, officials worry that Proposition 227 could harm the popular “dual-immersion” programs. Half the students in a class speak English, half speak another language, and the two groups learn each other’s language while pursuing regular studies.

“If the interpretation of special needs is strict, those programs will be decimated,” said Tim Allen, San Diego Unified director of second-language education.

San Diego Unified operates dual-immersion programs at four schools and has programs under development at two more schools. There are about 60 dual immersion programs statewide.

Unz, the Proposition 227 sponsor, said school districts should be preparing to seek the waivers that will be needed to continue operating dual-immersion programs if the initiative passes.

“I think the voters will take a very dim view of school board members who were sufficiently irresponsible to ignore the possibility that our initiative might pass,” said Unz.

Waiver guidelines

Under the initiative, guidelines for special-needs waivers would be established by local school boards, subject to review by the state Board of Education. Unz expects the state board to act as a check against any local board that might try to undermine the intent of the initiative.

Unz believes some districts will establish “magnet” schools for bilingual education, drawing students from a wide area. Some school officials are exploring whether bilingual education can be offered through innovative charter schools, whose number was expanded by a recent law.

“We are certainly not going to get rid of all of the bilingual education programs in California,” said Unz. “We are probably going to get rid of 97 percent of them.”

Although Unz is confident that the waiver provision will not be converted into a broad loophole, one of the co-authors of the initiative argued against putting anything in the initiative that might become the thin edge of a wedge.

“To be honest, I didn’t want a waiver process in there at all,” said Alice Callaghan of Las Familias del Pueblo in Los Angeles. She helped organize a school boycott two years ago by 90 students whose parents wanted their children taught in English.

But the nature of the debate over bilingual education changed after the initiative was placed on the ballot. A court ruled earlier this year that the state law requiring bilingual education had expired in 1987.

The ruling prompted the state Board of Education to adopt a new policy allowing local school boards to decide whether to use bilingual education or an alternative such as sheltered English.

And now the waiver allows Unz to cite the flexibility of the initiative when critics say decisions should not be imposed by the state, but made at the local level.

Under the initiative, there are three ways for parents to get waivers allowing their children to be taught through “bilingual education techniques or other generally recognized educational methodologies permitted by law.”

While applying for a waiver, the parents or legal guardians of a child must visit the school and receive a full description of the educational programs and materials available to the child.

One waiver is specifically designed for English speakers who want to take dual immersion programs. The student’s score on a standard English test must be at or above his or her grade level or the fifth-grade average, whichever is lower, to get the waiver.

A second waiver is for children 10 years or older. Unz and the initiative backers say kindergarten and first-grade students can quickly learn enough English, often in a few months, to move into a mainstream class and continue their English development. But older students may need to be taught in their native language.

Children seeking a waiver for the third reason, special needs, must first spend at least 30 days in an English-language classroom. The school principal and educational staff must believe that the child has a special need, and a written description of the need must accompany the waiver request.

The initiative says that if at least 20 students in a grade receive a waiver, the school must establish a bilingual class. If the school has no bilingual class, a student with a waiver must be allowed to transfer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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