If opponents of California’s old system of bilingual education worried that a hodgepodge of programs, many of them failures, was doing a disservice to immigrant children, they shouldn’t relax: Proposition 227 is not likely to bring improvement any time soon.
Now that a federal judge has declared the initiative constitutional, schools must scramble to invent the “sheltered English immersion” classes they must now substitute for whatever programs, including bilingual instruction, they had in place for students with limited English skills.
Early reactions from school officials around the state suggest those programs will vary wildly, if they are implemented at all.
In San Francisco, Superintendent Bill Rojas has announced he will ignore the law and continue bilingual programs until specifically ordered not to by a court. That does a disservice to English learners, who might find themselves thrown into English classes by sudden court order in the middle of a school year.
Most districts intend to comply with Proposition 227, but don’t know exactly how. Few teachers are trained to teach intensive English to non-native speakers at the same time they are teaching core academic subjects. Most schools lack textbooks and curriculum for “English immersion” classes.
Some schools will combine age groups and teach only English in the “sheltered” classes. Schools that don’t have enough limited-English students to justify an English immersion program may have to send students to other schools. Class-size reduction mandates may further complicate the scenario.
In adopting regulations to implement Proposition 227, the state Board of Education was none too specific. The board appropriately gave districts broad discretion in designing the programs that will substitute for bilingual education. It also smoothed the way for parents to get waivers exempting their children from sheltered English immersion programs.
Under the terms of the initiative, however, students must sit in an English-language classroom for at least 30 days before they can be granted a waiver to attend an “alternative” program. “Alternative” programs are undefined, but a student must be allowed to attend one under a waiver, unless a district can prove it “would not be better suited for the pupil” than English immersion. Theoretically, then, successful bilingual education programs could continue if enough parents go through the hoops to keep them alive.
English immersion programs, meanwhile, would normally last no longer than a year, according to the initiative. But the board’s regulations require provision of “appropriate educational services to English learners” until they are as proficient in English and other academic subjects as native-English speakers. That’s laudable and necessary. But just what it will mean in classrooms across the state is anybody’s guess.
Whatever one thinks of the merits of Proposition 227, requiring a law passed on June 2 and delayed until mid-July by legal challenge to be translated into new programs by late August is the kind of ludicrous demand typical of the initiative process. When school arrives in a few weeks, the only word English learners are certain to master quickly is “confusion.”