Funny things happen when ballot initiatives pass.

Consider, for example, how opponents of successful measures who argue that an initiative is inflexible and draconian before it’s voted on, later complain that it’s being inflexibly applied. Conversely, proponents who promote their measure as all sweet reason before the vote, later complain that it’s being interpreted so reasonably that it undermines its objectives. The field on which they joust is the legal ambiguity of the measure’s language.

The current example is Proposition 227, designed to discourage if not eliminate bilingual education in California schools. Voters passed it overwhelmingly in June 1998. Now it’s once again the subject of a bitter dispute between its author, Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, and a coalition of bilingual education administrators, consultants and activists backed by the political muscle of Hispanic legislators.

The state Board of Education has been under what one staffer called “incredible pressure” from the bilingual lobby and the Legislature’s Latino caucus ever since last fall. “If you resist too hard,” the staffer said, “you get called a racist.”

Now the board is caught in the crossfire. The fight, over new regulations governing the administration of Proposition 227, goes before the board again this week.

The immediate fight is over two proposed rules governing the process by which limited-English-speaking students can obtain waivers allowing them to go into bilingual classes or other alternative programs. Without such waivers they’d be required to be in regular classes or what Unz’s initiative calls sheltered English immersion. Unz, who’s nothing if not media savvy, has gone ballistic over both rules.

One of those draft regulations would allow school administrators to “initiate” a waiver, provided that parents were informed of their right to refuse it. But the law makes clear that a parent must go to her child’s school each year a waiver is sought and apply for it in person.

The other draft regulation concerns a provision of the initiative that requires a student to be enrolled in an English immersion class for 30 days to allow the school and parents to determine whether the child has the special needs — educational, psychological, physical — that would make bilingual or other alternative programs desirable.

The board’s draft would require that 30-day evaluation period only once

— until the special need is established. Unz says the measure mandates the 30-day period each year a waiver is sought. Even in English, we don’t always speak the same language.

John Mockler, the board’s executive director, says that it’s stupid to require a kid to waste 30 days each year — six weeks of classroom time

— in a program that’s not right for the child. And he’s right — it is stupid, if not cruel — but when the clear objective is to make waivers hard to get and to establish instruction in English as the default condition in all schools, Unz has a good case.

The board will probably amend its draft this week to make clear that a parent must come to school each year and apply for the waiver. If the parent doesn’t show up, the school can’t grant it on its own motion. But the board’s staff is confident that it’s on solid legal ground concerning the 30-day rule and is not likely to change it.

But beyond this fight there are larger controversies — demands from the bilingual lobby for regulations requiring schools to provide a range of alternatives for what the state calls English language learners (ELL); and a push for new legislation that, in effect, would allow many ELL students to be segregated in alternate programs with separate courses, books and a new professional credential.

To support their objectives, the bilingualists are working hard to get rules requiring students to be proficient in English before they’re reclassified out of the ELL category, a line that’s been a bone of contention for decades: What are “reasonably fluency in English” and “a working knowledge of English,” the phrases now used in the statutes?

Both sides talk parental choice. Both have horror stories — districts that, on the one hand, push children of reluctant parents into bilingual classes; districts, on the other, that refuse to grant waivers even when parents demand them.

Underlying those complaints are still deeper issues — professional self-aggrandizement, ideology, ethnicity, politics. Unz, who helped pass a clone of Proposition 227 in Arizona, is now campaigning hard for similar measures in Colorado and Massachusetts. Those campaigns might be tougher to win if he could no longer tout California as the shining example of his reforms.

Conversely, Unz is right that a lot of jobs, consultancies, professorships and professional organizations depend on the continuation of alternative programs for students who, by one measure or another, are deemed better suited for alternative programs. Parents may in theory choose, but in deciding what’s right for each child, a lot of people still think they know better. For the players, this is a high-stakes game.

Peter Schrag can be reached at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779 or at [email protected] .

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