California Still Debates Bilingual Education
By DON TERRY
LOS ANGELES -- Bilingual education in California was supposed to
be in a grave by now, essentially killed when residents voted last
spring to end it.
The ballot initiative,
supported by 61 percent of the voters, sought to
replace 30 years of using Spanish and other foreign languages to help
immigrant children in the state learn to read, write and speak English with
a method that uses "nearly all" English instruction.
But more than
a month into the current school term, bilingual education is
clearly still breathing. The reasons are a subject of hot debate.
the initiative, Proposition 227, assert that school districts
and the education bureaucracy are resisting the will of the voters, taking
advantage of loopholes to preserve a rejected method of teaching.
Critics of the
proposition see the bumpy transition as a result of confusion,
reluctance on the part of some parents and teachers to push children into
instruction they are not ready for, and even basic logistical issues like the
lack of textbooks.
What is clear is that the fight over Proposition 227 is not over yet.
Doug Stone, a
spokesman for the state Education Department, said he
had heard of no open defiance of the law and "when push came to shove,
virtually all of the districts are complying."
Some do not agree with that assessment.
"A lot of people
are trying to loosely interpret and undermine this law,"
said Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican and a
critic of bilingual education. "The law says 'nearly all' should be taught in
English. But many districts are using 40 percent Spanish and 60 percent
The law does
not define what "nearly all" means, so there is much
disagreement over what constitutes compliance.
the statewide education director for the Mexican
American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has gone to court
seeking to block the initiative, said that how the hundreds of school
districts across the state defined "nearly all" was "just all over the
said some districts were using a 60-40 English-foreign
language formula while others were using 70-30 or 80-20. "There's a lot
of confusion," she said. "It's a very political, murky environment right
The Los Angeles
United School District, with 681,505 students the
second largest in the country behind New York City, offers two programs
for pupils with limited English ability: Model A and Model B. In Model A,
the classes are taught virtually all in English. In Model B, 65 percent to 70
percent of the classes are taught in English.
one of the leading proponents of Proposition 227, said
"L.A. is absolutely out of compliance."
The state Education
Department has set up a study group to help districts
implement the law.
that before June 2 and after June 2 there would be more
questions than answers," Stone said, referring to the day the initiative was
approved. "But that isn't a sign from heaven that school districts can
thwart the law."
Out of the 5.5
million public school pupils in California, about 1.4 million
have a limited understanding of English, but only 30 percent of them were
enrolled in bilingual education programs last year. The rest were in classes
in which teachers used nearly all English. There were not enough qualified
teachers for bilingual classes.
227, some parents are eligible to request that their
children be retained in a bilingual program, and such waivers can be be
granted by a school district under three circumstances: The child has a
physical or psychological need to be in bilingual education, the child is
over 10 years old or the child speaks English.
But the question
of waivers is also the subject of intense and varied
interpretation and debate. Before a waiver can be granted, a child must
spend the first 30 days of school in a class taught primarily in English. That
period has now expired for about 25,000 Los Angeles pupils with limited
English skills who started the new year in late summer. Although many
expected a wave of request for waivers, only about 1,300 have been
sought so far, said Forrest Ross, director of language acquisition for the
Los Angeles district.
said, "I think a lot of parents are taking a wait and see
At the Logan
Street School in Los Angeles, a few blocks from Dodger
Stadium, parents of 250 of the 360 pupils eligible have asked for and
received waivers. Those children are now in bilingual classes.
"We're not trying
to circumvent the law," said Logan Street's principal,
May Arakaki. "We're just giving the parents the options they and their
children deserve and are entitled to."
and her staff have had to do some fancy juggling. Mrs.
Arakaki had to move three children whose parents signed waivers into
Helen Trevino's second-grade class, which is primarily bilingual, and
move three others into an English-immersion class.
Still, Ms. Trevino
has a class of nine bilingual pupils and six who are
taught primarily in English, forcing her to go from table to table and tongue
to tongue. Ideally, the class would be either all bilingual or virtually all
"I'm for bilingual
education," Ms. Trevino said. "But the new law has
passed and we have to deal with it."
In one twist,
39 of the nearly 1,000 schools districts in California --
including Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno and Oakland -- have
requested waivers of some kind to teaching all classes primarily in English
-- whether for individual schools or for entire districts.
But in August,
the state Board of Education, whose 11 members are
appointed by the governor, refused to consider the waiver requests,
saying it did not have the authority to grant them to districts.
was very clear about waivers," said Bill Lucia, executive
director of the state school board. "And it doesn't say anything about
After the board
refused to hear the requests, the districts of Oakland,
Hayward and Berkeley took the board to court, demanding that it be
forced to do so.
"We feel that
bilingual education works and we feel that our community
believes in bilingual education," said Sue Piper, a spokeswoman for the
53,000-pupil Oakland Unified School District. "That's not to say it's
perfect. But our test scores show that the children who graduate from
bilingual education do very well."
Superior Court Judge Henry Needham ruled last month
that the board had to hear the districts' waiter requests. The board
appealed the decision and voted to postpone action on the requests
pending the outcome of the appeal. That could be months, and in the
meantime the districts are required to implement the proposition.
Wilson had urged
the board to appeal Needham's decision, saying his
decision "could potentially eviscerate Proposition 227."
Lucia said that
some of the board members were also concerned that they
might be sued by proponents of the proposition if they ruled on the
waivers before the issue of the board's authority had been determined in
"It could require
individual board members to get lawyers," he said. "It's a
serious matter. It's a question of losing your house."
says that teachers and administrators who implement the law
improperly can be held liable.
to be suing soon," said Ms. Callaghan, a leading supporter
of the proposition. "We won't let this go on much longer."
The threat of
lawsuits has also had a chilling effect on teachers. Hundreds
of teachers in Los Angeles signed a petition last spring pledging open
rebellion if Proposition 227 passed. The teachers vowed to risk being
sued and dismissed by continuing to use bilingual education methods in
their classrooms. But so far, the rebellion has not materialized -- at least
would be dismissal, and that was made very clear to us,"
said Steve Zimmer a member of On Campus, the teachers' group that
organized the pledge of resistance. "But you certainly still have defiance.
It's just being done behind closed doors."
Zimmer said that
some teachers were simply teaching how they had
always taught immigrant children, using bilingual methods, while others
who otherwise comply with the law were still using a lot of bilingual
methods because they did not yet have the books and other materials
necessary to put the proposition into effect.
enough books," he said. "There are stories about fourth
graders using kindergarten books."
said, the majority of teachers are doing their best to comply
with the law.
we did the pledge," he said, "I can't in good conscience tell
a teacher to let this fail so we can get rid of it. The efforts of teachers not
to damage children is what is making this work at all."
But Ms. Callaghan
said she received almost daily reports of widespread
non-compliance by teachers and districts.
"Name me a district
that is not defying the law," she said. "There will be
less Spanish spoken, but that doesn't mean they will teach English
immersion. The law required that bilingual education be replaced, not
mended. It's going to be a very unfortunate year."
Yet at individual
schools like Logan Street in Los Angeles, it is more a
year of improvisation, of trying to accommodate and educate at the same
has two children at Logan, a daughter, Christina, 8, a
third grader, and a son, Gabriel, 9, a fourth grader. Her daughter began
school in bilingual classes but tested high enough to move into classes
taught in English before Proposition 227 became the law.
Mrs. Rodriguez signed a waiver for her son.
"He's not ready
yet," she said. "My daughter is doing very well, and I
think it is because of bilingual education. When she goes to college, she
wants to learn Japanese and French. That will be four languages she will
know how to speak and write. Employers will love her."