Catch 227: What Every ESL Teacher Should Know
About Anti-Bilingual Legislation

by Chris Boosalis <boosalic@YAHOO.COM>
September 29, 2000

In 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, an initiative to end bilingual  education. It appears likely that this is only the beginning. In the first election year  of 2000, thirteen states are considering similar legislation, most notably Arizona. 

Arizona is an important case, because its anti-bilingual legislation, known as Proposition 203, is modeled directly after California's 227, and voters will have the opportunity to say 'yea' or 'nay' on bilingual education programs by reading and casting a ballot on the following:

 A "yes" vote shall have the effect of requiring all public school instruction to be conducted in English,  rather than in bilingual programs, requiring an intensive one-year English immersion program to teach English as quickly as possible while teaching academic subjects, unless parents request a waiver for children who know English, are 10 years or older or have special needs, and permitting enforcement lawsuits by parents and guardians.

A "no" vote shall have the effect of not requiring that all public school instruction be conducted in English with a one-year English immersion program.1

The ballot language above makes it seem as if a massive effort will be mounted to teach elementary and secondary students English. Certainly, it does not suggest (as I will) that ESL teachers need to worry about anything at all; on the contrary, it might even look like job creation and security for the ESL teacher. But while it is true that this type of legislation has shattered bilingual education programs in California, and that it will probably do so where ever it passes, the educators who are left to pick up the pieces teach English-as-a-Second Language. If California is any example, and I believe that it is, ESL teachers and their students everywhere have much in store for them when anti-bilingual measures visit their communities.

California's legislation is now emblematic, because it is now in effect. While Arizona's initiative is far more severe than California's, it has not become law as of this writing and is not in place. Therefore, it is important to examine an anti-bilingual model that is currently at work to see what it has meant and will mean for the ESL instructor. To understand this, one must look beneath the ballot language to the actual text of California's anti-bilingual initiative to understand fully what ESL teachers will face elsewhere, once bilingual education and using the student's primary language are banned from classrooms. Three portions of actual articles from Proposition 227will help clarify what language restrictive legislation has meant for bilingual and ESL teachers in California and will mean for you and your neighborhood school if English-only comes your way.

ARTICLE 2. English Language Education 305. Subject to the exceptions provided in Article 3 (commencing with Section 310), all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English. In particular, this shall require that all children be placed in English language classrooms. Children who are English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.

Article Two, Section 305 of Proposition 227 explicitly states that only two options exist for educating language-minority students: the mainstream classroom or the 'sheltered English immersion' classroom. While parental exception waivers exist in California (they will not exist for parents in Arizona, unless the child is already fluent in English or over the age of ten), the terms of obtaining them seems to be complicated enough to ensure that the bulk of language-minority students are held to this two-option rule. 

But it is the item in bold that regards the duration of any special programs should be of central concern to ESL and mainstream, content-area teachers alike. This time limit means that any language-minority student whose English language skills are deemed too weak for the 'regular', English-only classroom have about a year to acquire enough English to transition to the mainstream classroom, give or take whatever '…not normally intended to exceed on year' means. 

Absent from any part of the document is a definition of whether this constitutes an academic year according to the school calendar (about 180-days, minus test days, holidays, fire drills, etc.) or a 365-day calendar year. The actual time frame will probably have to be determined in court. In any case, it is the ESL teacher's sole responsibility to ensure that her students are acquiring English rapidly enough to exit the course under the arbitrary one-year benchmark. This means two things: first, the student's conversational language must be at or near the same level as that of the native speaker of English; second, the student's command of academic concepts must be equal to her native speaking peers, too. While I will visit what this portends for instructing academic content later, one wonders whether or not achieving linguistic and academic proficiency is at all possible in one year.

The August 17, 2000 edition of the New York Times may stop wondering all the wondering. The article, "Increase in Test Scores Counters Dire Forecasts for Bilingual Ban", featured the Oceanside Unified School District (OUSD). If you have not heard already, Oceanside dropped its monolingual, Spanish-for-Native-Speakers program (it was not a bilingual program) and adopted the strictest interpretations of Proposition 227, meaning that parental exception waivers were denied and that the student's native language was not used, except in moments of great emotional distress (according to one teacher in the article). 

Currently, OUSD is touted as the example for our nation to follow. This is because test scores for students identified as English-language learners on a 1999-2000 statewide exam increased but did not decrease as many had feared. In the media, OUSD now shines as a beacon to all other districts in California and our nation that English-only can and will work. But this celebration takes place in spite of the fact that this district represents only one school district out of more than 2000 California school districts, that test scores rose in many school districts that kept bilingual education, and that increasing test scores was never a stated goal of Proposition 227.

So, what looks positive on the surface of the OUSD 'success' story actually holds frightening truths for the ESL teacher. What is being suppressed is the fact that out more than five thousand English Language Learners, only one hundred and eighty nine students were transitioned to mainstream classrooms this year in the OUSD . This means that only 4.1 percent of language-minority students were transitioned to mainstream classroom or that the English immersion program at work at OUSD failed to assist 96 percent of its students to make the leap to traditional, English-only classrooms. 

This is very disturbing. In the first place, OUSD, by its own admission, adopted the strictest interpretation of Proposition 227 and did everything possible to ensure that its teachers focused on English-only education. However, the paltry number of students that Oceanside was able to transition in the final analysis demonstrates that even the most valiant effort cannot not live up to having programs that will transition students in one year or just over one year or just under one year (whatever the case may be).

And Proposition 227 maintains that ambiguous time restriction. At one time, California voters and others had bilingual education programs to blame for such problems, even though less than thirty percent of California's eligible language-minority children ever participated in bilingual programs in the state (that number has since dwindled to 11 percent for this year)4. For the time being, California's ESL teachers appear safe from the accountability that Proposition 227 demands, particularly where transition rates are concerned. However, it cannot be long before this changes. 

Since Oceanside retained ninety-six percent of its students, there will be an ever-growing army of students trapped in sheltered English immersion. With bilingual educators shoved aside, ESL teachers will now take center stage (and central blame) as low transition rates repeat themselves year after year. This is happening as Oceanside is supposedly the district that 'did everything right'. 

Ken Noonan, the superintendent and former bilingual education supporter, has been given the lion's share of credit for organizing this English-only success. But what success? The transition rate does not even come close to what Proposition 227 demands in the span of time that it requires. To borrow a phrase from Humpty Dumpty, it seems that all of Ken's horses and all of Ken's men couldn't transition the students “muy bien.”

If the high retention rates do not materialize, a bigger problem might be looming on the horizon of this English-only dawn in America. School districts may begin to relax the exit criteria for students, so that they 'look good' and avoid clogged ESL classes. But relaxing exit criteria will mean that many students, particularly those students who actually need more time to develop their language skills, will be placed in the same, sink-or-swim approach that brought bilingual education to the forefront so many years ago. The reality is that many students will be transitioned out of programs too soon and mainstream teachers will have even more students in their classrooms who posses neither the conversational nor academic language necessary to survive there. 

Again, it will be necessary to find someone to hold responsible for this, and this time, they will not have bilingual teachers to blame. ESL teachers need to be very conscious of these legislative changes. There is nothing to save ESL teachers from incurring the same wrath that bilingual educators once did for not transitioning students quickly enough and for 'not preparing' students well enough once they have transitioned. As you will see, English-only law turns a blind eye to everyone's plight.

 ARTICLE 2. (Continued)
 306. (b) "English language classroom" means a classroom in which the language of instruction used by the teaching personnel is overwhelmingly the English language, and in which such teaching personnel possess a good knowledge of the English language…. (d) "Sheltered English immersion" or "structured English immersion" means an English language acquisition process for young children in which nearly all classroom instruction is in English but with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language.

Section 306 of Article Two provides definitions of terms used throughout the proposition. Parts (b) and (d) are included to highlight the now legal requirement of greatly restricting primary language use in either the mainstream or the 'sheltered' or 'structured' English immersion classroom. As one can see, instruction is to take place 'overwhelmingly [in]' or 'in…nearly all' English, though these terms have not been defined quantitatively and it will probably need a court test for the final word. 

At present, it might not appear that ESL teachers will be impacted negatively at all, given that they are presumably responsible for a students acquisition of the English language anyway. But Proposition 227 has completely changed what it means to teach English-as-a-Second Language, because the ESL teacher is now also responsible for instructing academic content without any support from a student's first language or from teachers who speak the child's first language.

This very absurd and unreasonable restriction will have detrimental consequences for teaching and learning the English language and academic content. As anyone who is familiar with instructing a language - any language, for that matter - knows, language and academic concepts are very challenging endeavors for both teachers and students. 

Take the following example of just what this means in terms of vocabulary. If one is teaching the terms, 'house', 'justice', and 'entropy' and their accompanying concepts, the degree of difficulty is going to vary, especially if one is trying to teach these items to a child who speaks a language other than English. When teaching the word, 'house', avoiding the primary language will be easy. 'House' can be modeled through pictures, etc. because it is concrete and contextually familiar. Complying with Proposition 227 will be easy in this instance. When teaching a term like 'justice', however, a direct translation will be most expedient (the term has a definition in all existing languages), because trying to model the term is almost impossible. Brief direct translations might sneak just beneath Proposition 227's demand that instruction take place 'overwhelming' or 'in nearly all' English, provided that such translations remain brief and direct. But the term, 'entropy', is another matter entirely.

What's the problem with 'entropy'? Nothing. Entropy is a great concept that is difficult to teach, because it is probably not a part of one's regular, everyday language. Entropy is a scientific concept (the second law of thermodynamics, to be exact) and it may not be immediately accessible in one's primary language, English or otherwise. If an ESL teacher is asked to instruct academic concepts like these, as they are presently being asked to do in California and elsewhere, avoiding the student's primary language will be impossible if not harmful. Here, even a direct translation of the term from English to the student's first language will not be enough. 

Examples and demonstrations and discussions will be required to drive home what this concept means and how it can be properly observed, and this can only compound the need for using as much of the first language as possible to do it. But Proposition 227 does not include such understandings and does not permit what would be only reasonable in such circumstances, which is to rely on the first language to carry the weight of instructing academic language and concepts. ESL teachers and their students are left to mime their way through concepts like entropy and metaphor - the very ideas that separate the educated from the layperson - with a one-year deadline placed on their heads.

 Language restriction might not sound like much to the ESL teacher now, but it is going to mean a great deal to them shortly. By law, the ESL teacher is now the primary or sole provider of both language and academic content for language-minority students. 

Returning to Oceanside's transition rate for a moment, it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of students there (96%) were not able to transition to mainstream classes in one year. Two things are apparent: first, learning both language and content simultaneously does not improve the transition rate; second, ESL teachers have now lost an important ally in this fight, the bilingual, content-area teacher. But with bilingual teachers removed from the equation, ESL teachers are now unfairly burdened with instructing what can often be divergent materials that are outside of one's academic preparation. One alternative would be to wait until the student's English is 'good enough' to handle hardcore, academic content, but this will certainly mean having students remain for much longer than one year in an ESL program; Proposition 227 is unsympathetic to this. Many things are possible under Catch 227, one of which involves legal action against teachers.

ARTICLE 5. Legal Standing and Parental Enforcement 320. As detailed in Article 2 (commencing with Section 305) and Article 3 (commencing with Section 310), all California school children have the right to be provided with an English language public education….Any school board member or other elected official or public school teacher or administrator who willfully and repeatedly refuses to implement the terms of this statute by providing such an English language educational option at an available public school to a California school child may be held personally liable for fees and actual damages by the child's parents or legal guardian.

In California, over seventy percent of language-minority children had been 'enjoying' the right to an English-only public education right up until the time of Proposition 227's passage. And given the ferocity with which the California voters approved of this legislation, it appears that they are clearly unsatisfied with the result of what was English immersion instruction, since the remaining thirty percent of students who were in bilingual programs could not have been responsible for one hundred percent of the perceived failure.

What did not exist in California law prior to 227 is that "improper" language instruction is now actionable. Parents can now sue a school district and a teacher 'who willfully and repeatedly refuses to implement the terms of…' Proposition 227's, which, as we have seen, include speedy transitions to mainstream classrooms and an 'overwhelming' English-only curriculum that abandons the first language, even if it is absolutely necessary to for teaching academic content. If lawsuits are brought against teachers, it is important to consider who will be the most likely candidates for such cases.

Surprisingly, California's bilingual teachers might be safe in this case. In the first place, their numbers are falling as they become English teachers or choose other professions entirely. Secondly, fewer new teachers are electing a 'bilingual' emphasis, meaning that future generations of will be certified to teach in bilingual settings5 - if you're not there, you can't be sued. Finally, those few remaining bilingual programs in California are protected by parental waivers. Bilingual and ESL teachers lucky enough to reside in communities with a strong commitment to bilingual education have found some sanctuary, and ESL teachers have someone with whom to partner in their pursuit of instructing both academic concepts, academic language, and 'survival' English.

But other ESL teachers have not been and will not be so lucky, particularly those teachers in districts like Oceanside, the poster-district of 227's success. Once the media catch on the dismal transition rates, and content-area teachers begin to receive students en masse who cannot function there, the only candidates available to play the educational blame-game will be the ESL teachers. This will not be just. As bilingual teachers can attest, it is not very fun.

The types of protections described earlier will not exist elsewhere, particularly if Arizona's initiative passes and it becomes the new model of English-only. The waiver provision is even more complicated in Arizona's Proposition 203, and the likelihood of a parent obtaining one is just about nil, unless the child is already fluent in English or is willing to be labeled a 'Special Education Student' in a two-hundred and fifty word essay written by the parent to be attached to the student's academic record6. This means that the ESL teacher will be left with no support from bilingual colleagues who are protected by waivers. And while Arizona's Proposition 203 does not name any teachers as potential candidates for lawsuits as California's Proposition 227 does, the Arizona initiative does specify that administrators can be sued by parents if 203's terms are not met.

For the ESL teacher, a professional life will be made difficult if not impossible. Administrators will certainly 'crack down' on their staff to avoid being sued for the actions of their teachers, for not transitioning students in one year, or for not preparing students to survive in content-area classrooms. ESL instructors - and even mainstream, content-area teachers -everywhere must realize that anti-bilingual measures will affect their lives just as much as they will affect the lives of bilingual educators. Though an ESL teacher might not be sued directly in Arizona, working conditions cannot be expected to improve under these provisions, and realistic expectations of staff and students will be banished from the classroom, right along with the student's native language. 

Returning briefly to California, in one Northern district, principals 'make the rounds' to ensure that all teachers are 'on the same page' of the ESL text book. And if one is not on page three, for example, and teaching the letter 'j', or the proper subject/verb agreement in for the verb, swim, the result is a 'write up'. So much for job satisfaction and security. The climate of fear that the this type of legislation brings should inspire us to term English-only just what it is: English-ugly. Everyone loses when English-ugly comes to town, especially those who are left to implement the impossible-to-meet expectations that voters have for language-minority children.

End Notes

1 The official ballot language to appear on Arizona's Proposition 203 is at

2 The text of California's Proposition 227 is available at

3 These data for the1999-2000 OUSD are available from the California Department of Education at

4 Data on pre- and post- 227 numbers are available at the following address:

5 Details on the precipitous drop in bilingual education enrollment can be found on Dr. Jill Kerper Mora's web site at:

6 The full text of Arizona's Proposition 203 can be found at: