SACRAMENTO—After an emotional debate carried on at times in three languages, the Assembly passed legislation Wednesday to extend the state’s bilingual education program until 1992.
The bill, by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), was sent to the Senate on virtually a straight party-line vote of 42 to 31, with only one Republican joining Democrats in voting for the measure.
Brown’s controversial bill would give new life to the state program that requires school districts to provide students who do not speak English with instruction in their own languages. It also would continue four other educational programs for gifted students, native Americans, children with reading difficulties and urban school districts with large populations of poor and minority students.
All five programs are set to expire June 30, following Republican Gov. George Deukmejian’s veto of a similar extension bill by Brown last year.
Bilingual education has become a sensitive issue because opponents — including many Republican lawmakers — believe that it undermines the use of English, which voters declared last November to be California’s official language.
Advocates of bilingual education, however, say that the program is the most effective way of teaching English to children who speak other languages. In most cases, they say, non-English speaking children can become fluent in English with about three years of bilingual instruction.
“We’re not asking to change the language in the state. All we’re doing is asking to give children the chance to learn,” said Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Alhambra), a supporter of the measure.
However, if the bill wins Senate approval, as is expected, the governor is likely to veto it again unless substantial changes are made in the way the bilingual program is structured, an aide to Deukmejian said.
“At this point, we cannot support the bill unless specific reforms are included,” said Deukmejian spokeswoman Donna Lipper. “The governor does support bilingual education but we need to see some changes on this.”
Lipper did not elaborate on what modifications the governor will seek in the legislation.
Under existing state law, whenever there are 10 or more students in a single grade who speak a language other than English, a school must provide instruction in the students’ native language while they learn English. About 525,000 students throughout the state are now enrolled in bilingual programs.
Without an extension of the state program, school districts would be bound only by federal law, which is less rigid than the state requirements and would allow districts to use teaching methods opposed by most Democrats, such as immersing non-English speaking students in English-only classes.
If approved by the governor, Brown’s legislation would not take effect until Jan. 1, 1987, leaving a potential six-month gap in state-mandated bilingual programs. However, Assembly Democrats moved to close that gap last month by quietly inserting a provision in the 1987-88 budget that would require school districts to follow the current program requirements through December.
Would Prod Officials
In addition to extending the program, Brown’s measure would prod school officials to make sure that parents are notified when their children are placed in bilingual classes. It also would increase the number of students who could be placed in experimental bilingual programs from 3,000 to as many as 70,000, an aide to the Speaker said.
Republicans have rallied behind a bill by Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier) that would reduce the scope of bilingual instruction and place students in English-only classes much sooner.
Hill attempted to amend his measure into the Speaker’s bill, but was rebuffed by Democratic legislators, who maintain that his proposal would gut the state’s bilingual education program.
During the Assembly debate, Hill attacked the state’s current program, saying, “Bilingual education today in California is filled with a bunch of bureaucrats that are left over from the Brown Power movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s.”
Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne) quickly called on Hill to apologize for “a very racist statement” and said, “The Brown Power movement was a movement of pride in a race and should not be taken as some sort of an illegality.”
The debate also featured discussion of the education issue in Spanish and German as legislators displayed their own bilingual skills. Assemblyman Sam Farr (D-Carmel), a backer of Brown’s bill, spoke in Spanish to demonstrate, as he explained in English, that Anglos can learn another language.
And Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run), an opponent of the bill, spoke briefly in German in an attempt to illustrate that racial, ethnic and political differences are “so totally secondary to being an American that it’s almost laughable.”
School districts around the state have had mixed response to the prospect of the state’s bilingual program ending.
Some districts, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, have urged the Legislature and the governor to approve the Brown bill and extend the bilingual education program. Assistant Supt. Ron Prescott said Wednesday that the district will continue to operate its bilingual education program as it does now, whether or not the state law is extended.
“We would like to see the regulations stay in place because it does provide a framework by which a bilingual program is operated,” he said. “However, if the regulations did not stay in place, based on the commitment of our board and our superintendent, our programs in Los Angeles would continue as they are.”
In San Diego, a spokesman for the San Diego Unified School District said that officials are considering a proposal to continue their bilingual program next year regardless of any action the state may take.
However, other districts, such as the Santa Ana Unified School District, have indicated that they would turn to programs such as English immersion, which would not require fully credentialed bilingual teachers in every bilingual classroom.