Voters tried to end bilingual education with Proposition 227 in 1998, but school districts throughout 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 native language instruction.
Under the law, parents can request waivers that allow children to learn in their native language. 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 or Spanish.
"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 program.
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 bilingual education teachers and sympathetic school administrators who want to keep the program alive.
"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 who are.
"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 bilingual education, 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 anything?"
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 tests measuring progress are in English. What is needed instead, they say, are fairer tests that incorporate native 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 anything else."
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 ethnicity."
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 education.
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 imposing English.
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."
Proposition 227, passed by 61% of California voters in 1998, limits bilingual education and makes English the predominant language of instruction. The law, however, has been implemented unevenly throughout the state.
Here's a sampling of Southland districts and their bilingual education numbers for the 2001-02 school year.
Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified
Limited in English: 4,014
% in bilingual education (total): 36% (1,463)
Limited in English: 1,346
% in bilingual education (total): 31% (415)
San Diego Unified
Limited in English: 40,171
% in bilingual education (total): 25% (10,091)
Santa Ana Unified
Limited in English: 41,278
% in bilingual education (total): 15% (6,389)
Los Angeles Unified
Limited in English: 302,378
% in bilingual education (total): 5% (14,572)
Limited in English: 5,588
% in bilingual education (total): None
Students: 6.2 million
Limited in English: 1.5 million
% in bilingual education (total): 10% (151,836)
Source: California Department of Education