California voters say ‘si’ to initiative, but implementation presents challenges

Judith Lessow-Hurley, a professor in the Bilingual Department at San Jose State University said, “It’s absurd that Proposition 227 limits parents’ rights to choose the language that is used to instruct their children.” Ms. Lessow-Hurley’s conviction also is held by the parents of thousands of limited-English proficient students who are taking advantage of a loophole in the proposition that allows parents to request waivers to have their children removed from English-immersion programs and placed back into bilingual programs.

Of the 4,326 LEP students who began the school year in English-immersion classes in the Alum Rock Union School District, more than 3,000 or nearly 70 percent-have been granted waivers, and of 5,048 in the San Jose Unified School District, 2,833 (56 percent) have been granted waivers. The return rate from English-immersion to bilingual is as high as 90 percent in some San Jose school districts.

Many teachers and school administrators who oppose Prop. 227 say waivers are legal. However, Ron Unz, the co-author of Prop. 227, said only 5 to 10 percent of parents of LEP students should legitimately be requesting waivers.

Voters pass initiative

On June 2, 1998 California voters approved Prop. 227, the “English Language in Public Schools” initiative, by a margin of 61 to 39 percent. The statute amends the California Education Code to replace the bilingual education system, which has been used in California’s public schools for the last 30 years, with English-immersion programs.

Bilingual education programs are designed to instruct LEP students in academic subjects such as math, science and history in their “primary” or “native” language while they are learning English. Under the proposition’s English-immersion system, students are taught in English, but with their curriculum and presentation designed for students who are learning English. As the proposition states, students in the English-immersion classes receive instruction “nearly all in English,” but can get some help in their native language. Gray matter

Many feel the proposition is vague and offers little guidance to teachers. Because the proposition does not clearly define such phrases as “nearly all in English,” some districts are interpreting this to mean that 90 percent of the instruction must be in English, while others interpret it to mean only 60 percent. For example, the English-immersion classes in San Jose Unified use 70 percent English and 30 percent native-language instruction, while the administration in Gilroy Unified school district decided to use 60 percent English and 40 percent native-language instruction.

Once English learners have acquired a “good working knowledge” of English, they are transferred to English-mainstream classrooms. Schools are permitted to place English learners of different ages and native languages in the same English-immersion classrooms, but their degree of English proficiency must be equivalent. If the student has not attained “a good working knowledge of English,” presumably a level of English competency that enables the student to compete in English mainstream classrooms, the student can be kept for a second year in English-immersion.

Parental rights

While the proposition requires schools to teach students primarily in English, it also allows parents to take their children out of English-immersion classrooms after the first 30 days. Waivers may be granted at any time during the school year, and may be renewed yearly. The proposition sets three circumstances under which LEP children may receive waivers from English-immersion and transferred to classes where they are taught English and other subjects through bilingual education techniques. A waiver may be granted if: 1.) the student knows English; 2.) the student is 10 years of age or older and is better suited for an alternative course of study; or 3.) the student has special needs.

Students may be granted waivers if they have a special physical, emotional, psychological or educational need to be in a bilingual program. Many districts are interpreting “special needs” broadly and granting nearly all of the waivers that are requested. Some opponents of bilingual education have pointed out that many school districts are doing everything possible so that parents request waivers for their children. For example, some parents are being told that their children will fall behind in substantive subjects such as math, science and history while they are in English-immersion programs. Other districts have handed out waiver request forms at special meetings for parents of LEP students.

Conflicting viewpoints

Supporters of Prop. 227 argue that California public schools do a poor job of educating immigrant children. They point to the low English literacy and 40 percent dropout rate among California’s Latino students. Supporters also believe that bilingual programs are too costly and waste financial resources, and that school districts have a financial incentive to use bilingual programs because they receive extra money for each LEP student. In California, approximately $400 million of special funds are spent annually in California on LEP students. Schools may also spend federal and local funds on special services for LEP students.

On the other hand, critics argue that Prop. 227 prohibits many successful bilingual education programs. Dr. Thom Huebner, a professor of second language acquisition at San Jose State University said, “Failed bilingual education programs can best be remedied by program changes that maximize parental control.” Critics say it is not fair to blame-bilingual education for the slow progress some students are making. They point out that the shortage of qualified bilingual teachers and resources is partially to blame. Dr. Lessow-Hurley said LEP students are denied access to substantive academic curriculum and this leads to irremediable learning deficits. She said the problem with the proposition is that becoming proficient in a language to be able to compete with students in English-taught classes takes four to seven years, not one or two years.

Research findings

Modern research studies on the effectiveness of bilingual and English-immersion programs are contradictory. As with most educational research, it is difficult to control language acquisition studies because of the variety of instruction offered and, as some point out, the complex social and economic background factors.

Researchers such as Rosalie Pedalino Porter, the Director of the Institute for Research in English Acquisition and Development in Amherst, Mass., argue that studies indicate that English-immersion is superior to transitional bilingual education and best serves the needs of LEP students. On the other hand, Dr. Kenji Hakuta, a professor in the Linguistics Department at Stanford University, said research shows that bilingual education for LEP students works better than alternative approaches.

Dr. Lessow-Hurley said, “The method used to instruct bilingual students should depend on their English and native language skills and their social and economic backgrounds.” She pointed out that concerns over the methods used in the classroom often become secondary to political and social concerns.

Further definition needed

Proponents of the proposition say they will continue to monitor whether districts are complying with proposition 227, and decide later whether legal action should be pursued over the large percentages of waivers that are being granted and the extent to which native languages are being used in the classrooms. Because of the intense debate and varied interpretation over Prop. 227, it is likely that many of its provisions will require judicial definition. Phrases in the proposition such as “special needs,” “a good working knowledge of English,” and “nearly all classroom instruction is in English” probably will be at the heart of future disputes.

Mark Schweighardt is completing a master’s degree in marketing communications at San Jose State University. He can be reached at [email protected]



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