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Proposition 227 Speaks the Language of Uncertainty

State Board of Education regulations give schools some guidance on ending bilingual instruction. But the voter mandate still has inherent loopholes and flexibility.

July 29, 1998|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Businessman Ron K. Unz and his allies had at least two goals in mind last year when they drafted Proposition 227: to end bilingual education in California, and to ensure that the initiative would withstand a court challenge if it won voter approval.

Those diverging aims produced a law with some internal conflicts. There is no mistaking the sweeping mandate--"all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English." Just as apparent are several loopholes and points of flexibility hedging that mandate.

Lawyers were arguing over Proposition 227 even before its triumph at the polls June 2. Now emergency regulations have been adopted by the State Board of Education to give school districts some guidance before implementation begins next week.

The regulations, which took effect last week and are due to be revised after four months, were touted by the state board as a solution that gives local educators and parents as much power as possible over classroom decisions. Critics, though, say the board failed to clarify the initiative's ambiguous provisions.

Following are questions and answers about the regulations and the initiative based on interviews with educators, legal experts and partisans on both sides.

Question: When exactly does the initiative take effect?

Answer: That depends on the courts and on the school calendar. A federal judge earlier this month refused to block the initiative from going forward. But opponents of the initiative who sued for a restraining order have appealed that ruling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Unless the appellate court intervenes, schools that run on a traditional schedule will have to put the initiative into effect as soon as they open for the fall semester. Schools that run on a year-round schedule--including many in the state's larger cities--must enforce the initiative for all semesters that begin on Monday or afterward. The Los Angeles Unified School District interprets that rule as meaning that 47 of its schools must go forward on Monday.

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Q: How long will children with limited English skills get help learning English before they are moved into mainstream classes?

A: Much was made during the campaign about the initiative's call for a one-year English immersion program instead of bilingual education. Critics said many students would be left to sink or swim because few would become fluent in English in just one year. But here's where the initiative hedged. It said that limited-English students should get help through English immersion for a time "not normally intended to exceed one year" and that they should be mainstreamed after they had acquired a "good working knowledge" of English.

The emergency regulations say that students can, in fact, stay longer than one year in English immersion classes, unless their parents object. And they appear to grant local educators considerable leeway to define a "good working knowledge" of the language. So a student in one district with a high standard for fluency might stay longer in an English immersion classroom than a student with equal abilities in another district with a lower standard.

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Q: Are there any guarantees that limited-English students won't get left behind?

A: The regulations, in line with federal court rulings, require school districts to continue to provide extra help to such students until they have reached a level of proficiency skill on a par with the average native English speaker in the district, and until they have made up any ground lost in other subjects while they were learning English. There is no time limit on such help.

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Q: Will parents be told about their children's options?

A: The regulations explicitly say that parents "must be provided" with a full description of the English immersion program "and any alternative courses of study" the district would offer.

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Q: Can teachers use any language in the classroom besides English?

A: Probably. The initiative does not ban the use of other languages in a classroom. To have done so would have invited a judge to block the law. Instead, it says that English immersion classes must have "nearly all" instruction in English. The emergency regulations do not elaborate on what that means. Many local educators are crafting plans that include a fair amount of native language instruction in a classroom, whether through aides or credentialed teachers.

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Q: Is there any way to keep bilingual education despite the initiative?

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