Los Angeles – Six months after California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 227, banning most bilingual education in public schools, many teachers and school districts are circumventing – and sometimes openly defying – the new law.
So far there have been no punishments against those who continue bilingual classes, a 30-year practice voters sought to end by a 61-to-39 percent margin in June.
“There are no current plans for legal action against any school district over Proposition 227,” said Rae Bellisle, staff counsel for the California Board of Education.
And with Democratic Gov.-elect Gray Davis – an opponent of Proposition 227 – about to take office, most observers say the state is unlikely to step in to enforce the law, designed to improve learning of English.
“This means many Latino children will not learn English because they will not be under any pressure to,” said Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and co-author of the 227 initiative. “I think the lack of action is really because of the inertia in education and the fact that nobody feels accountable to the voters.”
Under California’s ballot initiative system, measures can be put on the ballot if enough petition signatures are collected. Any initiative approved by the voters becomes law unless struck down by a court.
But Cassandra George, assistant superintendent in the Pomona Unified district, disagreed with Callaghan. “Our parents and our community have faith in our school district efforts and programs,” George said. In her district, 3,633 students are now in bilingual classes, compared with 5,461 before Proposition 227 passed.
Under 227, districts were to end bilingual classes, where children who speak little or no English are taught in their native languages. In California, that commonly means Spanish, but bilingual classes also have been offered in more than two dozen other languages, from Armenian to Vietnamese.
Despite the law, at least 130,000 students remain in bilingual classes today, although this number is significantly smaller – only one-fifth of the total – than before passage of 227. More than 200,000 other students are in bilingual classes that represent only partial modification of the former system.
Some school districts are circumventing the law by stretching the definitions it sets out.
Proposition 227 states that students in all classrooms be taught “overwhelmingly” in English, although it did not define overwhelming. The Los Angeles County Board of Education recently ruled that this means non-English-speaking pupils can be taught in their native languages as much as 49 percent of the time.
“We meant to allow for common-sense use of a child’s native language for clarifying concepts,” said Callaghan. “We intended to provide some flexibility, not to provide a loophole.”
Many districts statewide are making expansive use of waivers, which were intended to allow parents of students who already speak some English or have special psychological or educational needs to sign waivers asking that their children continue in bilingual classes.
In Los Angeles alone, more than 100,000 waiver forms have been sent home with students who met neither of the law’s conditions.
Some parents, however, have refused to sign waivers, even when their children might be eligible. Myra Camarillo, whose 6-year-old daughter attends Belvedere Elementary School in Los Angeles, said she decided not to sign because “I feel she should just learn English. I think she will be better off. I do want her to know Spanish, too. But she can learn that at home and English at school.”
School districts in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Ana and Berkeley are flatly refusing to change anything in response to the initiative. Those districts are joining the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit aimed at striking down Proposition 227 as unconstitutional on equal protection grounds.
Last month a state judge in Oakland ordered the state board of education to issue waivers from the entire law to any school district requesting one. That ruling by Judge Henry Needham came in response to requests for such waivers from more than 30 districts of all sizes. The board had refused even to consider any district-wide waivers, citing the “will of the voters.”
But Needham said district-wide waivers must be granted under a state education code section demanding the board approve all such requests “except where the board specifically finds the educational needs of the pupils are not adequately addressed.”
Ron Unz, the software entrepreneur who was the prime sponsor of 227, called Needham’s order “absolutely absurd.” He said the California state constitution gives ballot initiatives precedence over any conflicting state laws and has appealed Needham’s ruling.
But Forrest Ross, the Los Angeles Unified School District official overseeing its implementation of 227, defends the efforts to keep bilingual education.
“There is room in our schools for bilingual education programs and English language acquisition programs,” Ross said. “They’re side by side in many schools.”