Prop 227 still raises tempers

But a new study is beginning to answer some politically charged questions.

By Kim Minugh -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Thursday, December 16, 2004

Six years after its passage, the impact of Proposition 227 on the education of California's English-learner population is still hotly debated.

But answers might come in August, when the American Institutes of Research presents a statewide evaluation to the Legislature.

In 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, which aimed to eliminate most bilingual education programs, with 60.9 percent of the vote.

The study, "Effects of Implementation of Proposition 227 on Education of English-Learners, K-12," aims to evaluate the law's impact as well as the performance of non-native English speakers since its passage.

Study co-director Amy Merickel said initial analysis shows two significant findings:

* Proposition 227 significantly reduced the number of English-learners receiving bilingual instruction.

* Academic performance by those students does not vary greatly with the method of instruction.

Merickel cautioned, however, that the study is in its early stages, and the findings could change.

Before the law, 29 percent of California's English-learner population was in bilingual programs. By the 2001-02 school year, that portion had dropped to 11 percent.

The study also shows that between the 1997-98 and 2000-01 school years, 15 percent of schools statewide had dropped their bilingual programs and only 9 percent had continued them.

But Merickel stressed that bilingual education has never been as widely practiced as some believe. In that same four-year period, 66 percent of schools never had a program.

The remaining 10 percent of schools could not be classified because of insufficient data, Merickel said.

"People often assume the majority of English-learners received bilingual education," she said. "It's just not the case."

Also, teachers struggle with the meaning of Proposition 227 and how it affects their job, she said. Some believe that speaking any Spanish in class could get them sued, while others use Spanish more liberally.

"There's a lot of confusion surrounding what the law is in teachers' minds," Merickel said.

Bilingual programs still exist despite Proposition 227 because the law allows for waivers in certain cases.

According to the state legislative analyst's interpretation of the law, those cases include: a child at least 10 years of age whose principal and teachers think instruction in another language would be better for the child; a child has been in an English class for at least 30 days and the principal, teachers and district agree that instruction in another language would be better for the child; or a child already fluent in English whose parents want him or her to experience instruction in another language.

Ron Unz, author of Proposition 227, said the law intended for waivers to be granted in only a small number of cases.

"The number of waivers these districts grant are way more than they are legally allowed to grant," Unz said.

But José Cintrón, chairman of the Bilingual/Multicultural Education Department at California State University, Sacramento, said it is important for educators to advocate for bilingual education. "It still is a viable and appropriate way to teach kids," he said. "It has not died and gone away."


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