When Proposition 227 passed on June 2, voters thought that students would be taught only in English. But the battle over bilingual education in California is far from over. The minority who lost are fighting back.
In Los Angeles Unified School District, the battle against the measure is waged covertly under outward compliance. Teachers learn about Proposition 227 policies twice: first in the dry and ambiguous language of district and union memos, then verbally and in surprising new forms at union meetings.
I attended one such meeting in August. Theresa Montano, who heads the United Teachers of Los Angeles’ Bilingual Committee, spoke concerning the district’s interpretation of Proposition 227. The first thing she said was a surprise: The district allows that in English immersion classes, up to 49% of the day’s instruction can be in Spanish. In other words, a story may be read to students in English but the “concepts” may be explained in Spanish. Bulletin boards may be in Spanish. In addition, a teacher in classrooms where children speak little or no English must have the old-style bilingual credential certifying fluency in Spanish and, not incidentally, conferring on the teacher an extra $5,000 a year.
Montano said at the meeting that the district officials who were developing this policy shared “our struggle.” But others might question whether this policy represents English immersion, i.e., “overwhelmingly in the English language,” called for in the initiative.
Montano then discussed the waiver provision of Proposition 227, which provides that a parent can seek bilingual education for a child under certain circumstances, including “emotional, educational and psychological” needs. The assumption has been that the burden of proof in these cases will rest on the parents. But Montano told us that the district had promised that every waiver will be granted. All a parent must assert, Montano went on, is that the child “needs” or “wants” bilingual instruction or is “nervous” about only-in-English instruction. Montano said it was imperative that teachers communicate to all parents that the waiver was the best choice.
A group of bilingual teachers and representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and the Los Angeles County Board of Education then explained that, since it is illegal to promote avoidance of English immersion on school time, we should hold after-school meetings to bring parents the word. The speakers passed out applications for permits authorizing use of school auditoriums for such meetings. They promised 1,000 free flyers to announce each meeting to parents plus training for teachers in how to conduct the meetings. We received a hotline number to report instances when parents were not fully informed of their right to avoid English immersion.
A few weeks after this meeting, I attended UTLA’s leadership conference in Palm Springs, where Montano and the district’s top bilingual official, Forrest Ross, explained that English alphabet and letter sounds would not be taught in English immersion classes in kindergarten and first grade per “proven” bilingual theory. Only children receiving bilingual education under the waiver would learn English alphabet and letter sounds. If you find that confusing, join the club.
Irate teachers pointed out that Latino parents would, in effect, be forced to choose the bilingual waiver in order to have phonics taught to their children. Ross replied that research has shown this to be best.
So what we have here, it seems, is a collaboration of district and union officials and bilingual teachers to keep Spanish instruction in the classroom with its attendant flow of money and perks in a seeming attempt at an end-run around the intent of 227 and the will of the voters.
Lawsuits from supporters of English immersion are in the offing. The outcome of this struggle, which is just beginning, should answer the question of whether a popular initiative with virtually no legal problems can be implemented.
Douglas Lasken is a fifth-grade teacher and teachers’ union representative at Ramona Elementary School in Hollywood