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Commentary

Schools Are Subverting the People's Will

Bilingual instruction: Californians voted for English immersion, but many districts play obfuscating word games.

September 03, 1998|ALICE CALLAGHAN | Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest, directs Las Familias del Pueblo, a nonprofit community center in Los Angeles' garment district

When 61% of Californians voting in June elected to replace native-language instruction with structured English immersion, did they know that school boards across the state had a tacit veto by simply refusing to implement the measure?

In the weeks following passage of Proposition 227, we have learned that nothing the education bureaucracy opposes will be done. Many school districts, including San Francisco, Oakland and Fresno, defiantly refuse to implement any part of the proposition. From National City to San Diego County, districts have readied waivers, not English lessons, so students can continue Spanish classes.

California voted overwhelmingly on June 2 to replace--not repair--its failed 30-year "bilingual" educational experiment with the universally practiced method of structured immersion.

Structured English immersion programs use subject matter instruction designed to promote English acquisition while teaching academically demanding, grade-level-appropriate material. Special teaching techniques are used to help students understand English instruction even though their English proficiency is still limited.

Proposition 227 specifies that "nearly all" instruction be in English, allowing for the common-sense use of a child's native language for concept clarification whenever necessary.

While some districts are refusing to recognize Proposition 227, others have devised plans that they believe contravene the proposition and enable them to continue existing programs. The Los Angeles County Office of Education announced that schools can teach non-English-speaking students in their native language as much as 49% of the time and still be in compliance with Proposition 227. Districts in Riverside and Vista have decided that classroom instruction need be in English only about 60% of the day.

I prefer to believe that no educators are so clueless about structured English immersion that they believe parceling the minutes of the day gets them there.

The Los Angeles Board of Education has designed an implementation option, "Model B," which enables school staff who are philosophically opposed or feel threatened in their careers to continue existing bilingual programs. Indeed, school board members openly say they intend to continue Spanish-language classes in the content area and use Spanish-language texts.

The state Board of Education passed regulations that made no mention that children requesting waivers must meet one of three conditions set forth in the proposition: that a child already speaks English, is over 10 years of age or has such special physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs that an alternate course of study would be better suited to the child's overall educational needs.

The board appears to have made a 180-degree dive on this by writing regulations saying that all waiver requests shall be granted unless educators determine that alternative programs, such as native language instruction, would not be better. Oxnard schools collected 1,700 signed waivers before school even began.

Voters don't need a law degree to know that this is the reverse of what they voted for on June 2. The waiver process was intended to provide flexibility for the exception, not to leave a loophole so wide that Los Angeles and other districts could drive their whole native language program right through it.

Curriculum and materials for teaching structured English have existed for many years, in many different forms, throughout Los Angeles and the rest of California. Inglewood's Bennett-Kew and Kelso elementary schools have used structured English immersion for 20 years, resulting in test scores exceeding most English-speaking students from the suburbs. If Los Angeles teachers are not likewise trained and competent to teach English as a second language, it is no wonder that educational outcomes have been so dismal.

In a 1991 ruling, the California Supreme Court expressed its reluctance to interfere with the implementation of initiatives. "Indeed, it is our solemn duty to jealously guard the precious initiative power, and to resolve any reasonable doubts in favor of its exercise." California's educational bureaucracies should demonstrate such a commitment to the democratic process.

Failing to do so will result in time-consuming and costly litigation and continue to frustrate efforts to ensure that all children in California become truly literate in English.

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