October 16, 1998

Fight Over Bilingual Education May Play Out In Court

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - Thousands of parents are asking for waivers putting their children back in bilingual education, but Proposition 227 campaigners say that doesn't mean their crusade is shriveling at its grass roots.

``The waiver process is being abused by teachers and principals not by parents,'' says Alice Callaghan, director of the Los Angeles community group Las Familias del Pueblo and a leading opponent of bilingual education.

Proposition 227, which passed with 61 percent of the vote in June, sought to scrap bilingual education by dictating that limited-English speakers be put in a one-year immersion program taught ``nearly all'' in English. Parents were allowed to ask that their children be put back in bilingual education after 30 days if they were over 10, already spoke English or had ``special needs.''

The law took effect Aug. 2, but some schools have kept bilingual education alive by interpreting the phrase ``nearly all'' to mean anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of instruction can be in a second language.

Controversy also has arisen over the waiver process, with proposition proponents charging that schools are stacking the deck against English immersion.

In the state's largest district, Los Angeles, officials are delaying reading instruction for students in English immersion until they are fluent, which could take two years or more, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday.

The district reported only 1,400 waiver requests for the 22,000 limited-English students enrolled in year-round schools beginning Aug. 3, but has yet to report the waiver response from schools that started in September.

Proposition 227 campaigners provided a description of programs in another district, Oxnard, that says there will be no reading/writing readiness instruction in English immersion kindergarten classes but that students in the bilingual education program will get daily instruction until they are ``fluent in English speaking, reading and writing.''

Oxnard interim Superintendent Richard Duarte denied officials are trying to steer parents toward waivers.

``There's a certain level of fluency that's required before you learn to read,'' he said. ``It's not a matter of scaring anyone. It's a matter of making an informed choice.''

The full extent of waiver requests won't be known for a few weeks, but several districts are reporting a sizable volume. In Oxnard, for instance, 63 percent of parents wanted their children in bilingual education, Duarte said.

In Oakland, preliminary figures showed 9,201 requests had been filed, a little over half of the district's 18,096 limited-English students. About half of the requests were for full bilingual education, the rest were for programs that have a strong English component.

In the Central California district of Fresno, the district had 1,350 requests as of Oct. 7. Prior to Proposition 227, about 5,000 of the district's 25,000 limited-English speakers were in some form of bilingual education.

What happens next?

Civil rights groups already are challenging Proposition 227 in federal court and a number of districts are suing in state court trying to force the state Board of Education to grant them district-wide exemptions under the waiver clause. (The board has issued regulations making it easy for districts to grant individual waivers but has refused to go along with the district-wide exemptions.)

Proposition 227 proponents say they'll sue to stop the wholesale granting of waivers.

``School districts like Los Angeles are going to have to be taken to court,'' Ms. Callaghan said.

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