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California and the West

Schools Told to Obey Prop. 227 by This Fall

Education: State board backs end to bilingual classes in 1998-99 year. Foes hope lawsuit blocks initiative.

July 02, 1998|NICK ANDERSON and AMY PYLE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Turning up the pressure on schools to dismantle their bilingual education programs, the State Board of Education declared Wednesday that a sweeping initiative approved by voters last month should take effect during the 1998-99 school year on all campuses statewide.

The 7-1 board vote rebuffed the arguments of some education groups and school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, that the fine print in Proposition 227 allowed many schools--those operating year-round--to wait until July 1999 before switching to strictly English instruction.

The board vote leaves foes of the initiative pinning their hopes on a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco seeking to have the proposition invalidated. A hearing on the suit is scheduled July 15.

The initiative, enacted June 2 by a resounding 61%-39% margin of California voters, calls for a radical overhaul of how schools teach hundreds of thousands of students with limited English skills.

In place of bilingual education--which most often in California has meant instruction in Spanish and English--it would put such students in English "immersion" programs for about a year before shifting them into "mainstream" classes. It allows exceptions under limited circumstances when parents request waivers for their children. And it requires the changes to take place for "all school terms" beginning more than 60 days after the election--that is, after early August.

The debate before the state board was over how to define a school term.

Many schools in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and other urban areas operate on year-round calendars that began Wednesday, during the 60-day grace period allowed by the initiative. Those districts also have some of the state's heaviest concentration of limited-English students and bilingual classes. And their officials say they need as much time as possible to buy new textbooks, overhaul lesson plans, retrain teachers, notify parents and do all the other tasks entailed in a 180-degree switch in curriculum.

Along those lines, some educators argued that the next "school term," for purposes of the initiative, should mean the year that will begin July 1, 1999.

The Assn. of California School Administrators and the California Federation of Teachers were among the groups backing the interpretation that would push the clock back a year.

"The limitations of time in which to implement [the changes] are unprecedented in the district's history," Carmen Schroeder, an associate superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, wrote in a memorandum last month. Merely designing new programs before September, she wrote, "would be an insurmountable task."

But the initiative's supporters contended that voters meant for it to be in force for the 1998-99 school year, in most cases by September. Alice Callaghan, who organized a boycott of bilingual education in a downtown Los Angeles school in 1996--the event that inspired the initiative--said education groups arguing otherwise "remain clueless. They still don't believe this has happened to them."

The state board, which is meeting weekly this summer to craft emergency rules and guidelines to clarify ambiguous points in the initiative, came down on the side of the initiative proponents on this issue. It issued a proclamation that the initiative would take effect for every school "semester or equivalent" that begins after Aug. 2.

That means that some year-round Los Angeles schools, which began new semesters Wednesday, will not have to comply with the initiative for the length of the semester, about 90 school days. But schools beginning new terms at the traditional time, in September, will have to comply immediately.

"This is a very prudent way to move forward," said board President Yvonne W. Larsen. Another board member, Janet Nicholas, called the vote a "sensitive and careful way to implement the intent of Proposition 227."

Robert L. Trigg, the lone dissenter, said he wanted to give schools "as much time as we can."

A spokesman for Los Angeles Unified, Brad Sales, called Wednesday's decision "unfortunate." About 312,000 of the district's 681,000 students are classified as limited English proficient. Of those, two out of five were in bilingual classes in the last year.

Sales said the district is "aggressively planning" to implement the new law but also hopes the federal court will block it. The district, the second largest in the nation, has filed a "friend of the court" brief on the side of plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

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