New Testing Adds Urgency to Bilingual Ed Battle
January 4, 2003
Daniel Yi, LA Times
Voters passed the language prohibition in 1998, but parental waivers are a big
loophole. And that can
make it harder to meet new federal standards.
Voters tried to end bilingual education with Proposition 227 in 1998, but school
California are still struggling to implement the controversial law, even as new
federal standards requiring
improved test scores take effect.
This year, the clock will begin ticking for the state to improve the test scores
of all its 6 million
students, including the 1.5 million who aren't fluent in English, or risk
federal sanctions under the No
Child Left Behind Act. Schools that fail to improve two years in a row may lose
federal funding -- as well
as students, because parents would then be allowed to send them elsewhere.
Backers of Proposition 227 say stricter enforcement of the ban is the answer.
They argue that the
more literate children can become in English, the better they will do
academically. Opponents contend
that forcing English instruction on students not yet versed in the language puts
them at risk of falling
behind on other subjects, such as math and sciences.
One thing both sides agree on: Statewide implementation of the measure has been
uneven at best,
capricious at worst.
In the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District -- a fairly typical
suburban district but one that has
the highest proportion of students in bilingual education in Orange County, and
perhaps the state --
officials this school year decided to eliminate what they saw as a bias favoring
Under the law, parents can request waivers that allow children to learn in their
Placentia-Yorba Linda being one of many districts to grant a large number of
waivers, its officials decided
to cut back. The move immediately raised the ire of some parents, who didn't
mince words -- in English
"I want my kids to understand what they are learning," an angry father declared
during a recent school
board meeting, where about a dozen Latino parents came to protest.
"Nosotros no somos ignorantes," said one mother -- "We are not ignorant. We know
what we want for
our children and we are willing to fight for our rights."
But Supt. Dennis Smith said the numbers of children granted waivers to
Proposition 227 were too
glaring to ignore. Of the district's 4,100 students who aren't fluent in
English, one-third were being
taught in Spanish last school year. Statewide, the rate is 10%. The numbers
"raised questions," Smith
said, so the 26,000-student district now requires parents to delay requesting
waivers until their children
complete a monthlong English immersion class, and then only after discussions
with the principal.
"Our intention was simply to become fully compliant with the law," Smith said.
The number of waivers granted varies greatly from district to district.
In Los Angeles Unified School District, where 300,000 of 735,000 students speak
limited English -- the
largest population of so-called English learners in state schools -- about 5%
receive bilingual instruction.
In Ventura County's Moorpark Unified, where officials recently took the drastic
measure of killing some
bilingual classes mid-year in a bid to improve test scores, nearly a third of
English learners were in the
Meanwhile, in Contra Costa County's Pittsburg Unified School District, where a
third of its 9,700
students speak only limited English, officials reintroduced bilingual education
for the first time this school
year after banning it post-Proposition 227.
In Santa Ana Unified, 15% of students not fluent in English receive instruction
primarily in their native
language. Still, critics contend that bilingual education is rampant in the
overwhelmingly Latino district of
62,000 students and are seeking to recall a trustee they say is illegally
promoting the program.
Statewide, the number of students in bilingual education dropped from more than
410,000 in 1997 to
just under 152,000 last year.
To Proposition 227 proponents, waivers are a "loophole" that have been abused by
teachers and sympathetic school administrators who want to keep the program
"It is a sign of the stubbornness of the entrenched bilingual education
bureaucracy," said Ron Unz, the
Palo Alto businessman and Proposition 227 co-author who successfully promoted
similar measures in
Arizona and Massachusetts.
Bilingual education defenders counter that waivers are being unfairly denied in
some districts by officials
who are either ideologically opposed to the program or simply bowing to
political pressure from those
"We have seen this from the day Prop. 227 was enacted," said Hector Villagra, an
attorney with the
Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "If the principals don't like
they are going to do everything to kill it."
MALDEF has fought the measure in the courts and vows to take its challenge to
the U.S. Supreme
Court. But while the law is on the books, MALDEF and others say, the waivers
must be protected.
Placentia-Yorba Linda officials say they are not trying to deny bilingual
education to students, but the
waivers were simply too frequent to be considered exceptions. In some schools,
nearly all of the
primary grade students, as much as 98%, were being taught in Spanish.
"We discovered a kink in our system," said Ann O'Rourke, the district's director
of educational services.
"The parents were not making an informed decision." Still, some parents were
visibly galled by what
they saw as unnecessary hurdles and an affront to their language.
"Our principal told us English is better for the kids," said Beatriz Lopez, a
kindergarten mother. "If you
go to China, and you don't understand Chinese, how are you expected to learn
Critics of bilingual education point out that since Proposition 227, test scores
have risen steadily for
Latino students, who represent the overwhelming majority of English learners.
But they have for all
students, especially in the lower grades where the state has given incentives
for class-size reduction.
Bilingual education defenders say short-term gains should be expected since the
progress are in English. What is needed instead, they say, are fairer tests that
languages when rating schools.
"When you are in an English-only environment and you don't speak English, it is
like watching TV with
bad reception," said Mary Hernandez, an attorney for Multicultural Education,
Training and Advocacy, a
Latino education rights group representing the Placentia parents who want
bilingual education. "The
image is fuzzy. While they are learning English, they are not learning almost
Whether Hernandez is right is too early to say, according to a report on
Proposition 227 mandated by
the state Legislature. Its authors said there isn't enough research to sort the
conflicting claims. It also
found "enormous variation and confusion" among districts on parental waivers.
Proposition 227 "has not been a disaster, nor has it been a silver bullet," said
Reed Hastings, president
of the State Board of Education. "Issues of educational philosophies tend to be
very heated. But
bilingual education is even more so because it involves language and race and
Just how heated is evident in the rhetoric. Nativo Lopez, the Santa Ana trustee
targeted for recall, has
denied breaking the law and suggested that the campaign against him has nothing
to do with bilingual
Nonetheless, the longtime Latino rights activist makes no secret about his
feelings on Proposition 227.
"It is a classic case," he said, "of the majority oppressing minorities" by
Gloria Matta Tuchman, a retired Santa Ana teacher who helped draft the 1998
measure, retorted, "I'd
like to see Santa Ana kids become bilingual -- by learning English."