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Union Tells Teachers in State to Obey Prop. 227

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The president of the California Teachers Assn. on Saturday urged the group’s 280,000 members to teach according to the provisions of Proposition 227, the controversial anti-bilingual education initiative passed by voters last week.

But union officials also made it clear that teachers who are sued under the terms of the proposition for “curricular malpractice"--meaning that they fail to use enough English in the classroom--will be aggressively defended by the union in court.

To a Los Angeles ballroom full of the union’s local leaders, CTA President Lois Tinson bemoaned the victory of Proposition 227, which the union spent more than $600,000 trying to defeat.

But, she told the union’s State Council, “I count on you to be sure teachers know they must comply with the law.”

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The initiative, which seeks to end 30 years of teaching children in their native languages, is scheduled to take effect by this fall. California voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, which has divided the state’s teachers.

Proposition opponents filed a lawsuit last week alleging that the measure violates the civil rights of students with limited English skills. No hearing date has been set in the lawsuit or on opponents’ request for a preliminary injunction to block the initiative’s implementation.

Tinson said Saturday that the union, which represents a majority of the state’s teachers, may assist the proposition’s opponents in the suit.

Later this week, the State Board of Education is expected to begin working on regulations aimed at defining such provisions as teaching “overwhelmingly” in English.

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But even after those rules are established, education officials acknowledge, change will not occur without the cooperation of local boards of education, school administrators and teachers--most of whom fought against the proposition. In the wake of the measure’s passage, a group of 1,500 pro-bilingual teachers in Los Angeles County said they may deliberately disobey the law.

To encourage teachers to cooperate, authors of the initiative specified that parents may sue educators who “willfully and repeatedly” refuse to carry it out. Further, teachers can be forced to pay the legal expenses of the parents, should the parents prevail in court.

That provision in particular worries teachers, who fear that a disgruntled parent could target them just for following a school district’s policy.

“Putting that in there makes it seem like a parent has the responsibility to go and sit in a classroom and monitor what’s going on,” said CTA chief counsel Beverly Tucker. “You are deputizing an army of parents to enforce the proposition.”

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About 1.4 million of California’s 5.6 million schoolchildren are still learning to speak English. About a third of them are taught using their primary language to build conceptual knowledge in subjects such as math and history while trying to move them toward fluency in English. But some youngsters become stuck in such bilingual classes and never develop the linguistic skills needed to succeed academically.

The proposition requires that most of those children take a one-year intensive class in English before moving into regular classes.

Tucker said teachers in districts that have vowed not to comply with the proposition, such as San Francisco’s, will be especially vulnerable.

“The teachers are stuck,” she said. “They could be sued even though the teacher had nothing to do with the decision” to resist the proposition’s requirements.

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Also placed in an awkward position are teachers and administrators in districts in which the bilingual program is operating according to a consent decree with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.

Such decrees, which are in effect in Oakland, Lodi and other cities, result from complaints in which it is alleged that the rights of students not fluent in English have been violated under federal law. The orders typically prescribe bilingual education as a remedy.

Changing their instructional program to comply with Proposition 227 could cause those districts to lose federal funding. But not changing the program “sets them up to be sued by parents,” Tucker said.

Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the Proposition 227 campaign, said she does not expect a flurry of lawsuits because most teachers and school districts will follow the law.

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But, she said, the provision granting parents the right to sue was included specifically to “give teeth to the initiative.”

Indeed, there’s little the state can do to force compliance not only with the new law against bilingual education but with any other educational policy. The state periodically reviews whether school districts are complying with various regulations and issues reports. But there are no provisions for penalizing districts if they refuse to follow instructional guidelines.

That’s why the pro-Proposition 227 camp tried something else.

“We don’t intend to have Big Brother out there watching every classroom, but if it’s obvious that teachers and administrators are . . . disobeying the law, then they will be subject to a lawsuit,” Annis said.

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That has unnerved teachers and made the proposition a hot topic at the union State Council’s quarterly meeting this weekend near Los Angeles International Airport.

“It’s a very scary thing,” said Mikki Cichocki, a San Bernardino teacher who works with a bilingual aide to instruct first-graders and kindergartners whose first language is Vietnamese or another Asian tongue.

She said she feared that the potential for lawsuits will make the state’s teacher shortage even worse. “Who’s going to want to become a teacher when they know they can be held personally liable for curricular malpractice?” she asked.

Ann Adler, a Garden Grove teacher who instructs non-fluent children in English, also fretted over such uncertainties. “Is it going to put restrictions on the way we have been teaching, where we were allowed to show them various cultures?” she asked.

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Tucker said she believed that merely speaking a language other than English in class has not been outlawed. But she said the law is so vague that it may take years of litigation to sort out what is allowed.

The state Department of Education will issue advisories interpreting the proposition. A spokesman said the department will ask the Legislature to provide additional money for new books and teacher training to comply with the law.

An article published in the newspaper of United Teachers-Los Angeles, the union’s local affiliate, summed up the concerns.

“We could face a time when teachers look out upon a classroom of students and envision, instead of a set of eager future scholars, a sea of potential courtroom adversaries.”

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During its meeting Saturday, the State Council voted unanimously to endorse Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, for governor in his race against Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, a Republican. The state union was neutral in the primary.

The group also endorsed Delaine Eastin for state schools chief. She faces a runoff against Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Santa Ana teacher who co-sponsored Proposition 227 and supports publicly funded vouchers for children to use at private schools.


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