The State Board of Education has a history of wild fluctuations, both in policy and in its degree of activism. Depending on who’s in charge, the
board can be either an innocuous political backwater or a nexus of
controversy. After a long stretch of calm, the board appears headed for
controversy by considering a new policy on bilingual education. The policy
has already raised the eyebrows of some groups which suspect it might go
against the board’s previously stated position of support for such programs.

The policy is controversial because it would essentially allow school
districts to decide for themselves how to integrate students who are not
fluent in English. Currently, there are few guidelines for bilingual
classrooms in California. Primary language instruction is not required by
federal law, but it is required by state statute “when necessary.”

“The matter of concern or debate is when is it necessary — is that a
local, state or court determination?” explained Greg Geeting, the state
board’s executive director. According to Geeting, the only real guidelines
the board has been using came from the specific programmatic provisions of
the Moscone-Chacon Bilingual-Bicultural Education Act of 1976. That act
requires that programs “provide equal opportunity for academic achievement,
including, when necessary, academic instruction through the primary
language.” Although the Act sunsetted long ago, Geeting said, funds are still
flowing to local agencies under its provisions and must be used for the
“general purposes” of the Act.

The policy being considered by Geeting and the board would give local
boards broad latitude to determine whether and how any bilingual instruction
will be conducted. The state would only require that the program follow
sound educational theory that could include either bilingual training or
intensified English instruction. Parental consent would be required, and
parents would be furnished the tools to augment the instruction at home.

“The delivery of … academic instruction by a teacher who has a second
language ability is one method, but (there are other methods),” said Geeting.
“The board’s perception is that we need to get out of the business of
prescribing those things for the districts.”

The staff report is not the only one to be considered by the board.
State Supt. of Public Instr. Delaine Eastin is also preparing a new bilingual
education policy, and the board will likely consider the alternatives
side-by-side. Eastin says she welcomes the renewed attention to the program, citing the challenges faced by districts like that in New Haven.

“There are 65 languages spoken in New Haven; you can’t possibly operate
in an environment like that,” she said. “Kids have to be able to learn … I
think the goal is the same for both my staff and (the state Board).”

Geeting agreed that his proposal was not intended to be in “competition” with Eastin’s proposal, and, in fact, expects them to overlap in several key
areas. “She has different ideas and that’s okay. I think the instruction I
had (was to develop) a proposal along the lines of the state needs to get out
of being prescriptive, and instead hold districts accountable for the
results.”

Just because Eastin is in a cooperative mood does not mean the proposals aren’t drawing criticism from other sources. The California School Boards
Assn. is concerned that the proposal may be tantamount to a reversal in the
state board’s support for native language instruction. “Officially, we
haven’t come out against it, but we are very much concerned about it,” said
Theresa Garcia, research and policy analyst for the California School Boards
Association. “(If the policy is adopted), perhaps local board members
wouldn’t have the community support to provide the language instruction when
necessary.” Garcia said in the CSBA’s April newsletter that the organization
is concerned that the policy does not reflect the sunset provisions of the
Moscone-Chacone Act, but Geeting said that was a mistaken assessment.

“If the board was to adopt the proposal as I drafted it, it would be the first time any state decision-making body set forth exactly what the
post-sunset general purpose requirements are,” Geeting argued. “The
requirements have been set forth in non-binding advisories, but the state
board would be saying that these are the general purposes.”

Despite the renewed attention, the board is following its historically
glacial pace in dealing with the issue. Geeting said the last mailing to the
board members before their May 11 meeting would include a copy of the
Department’s proposal along with his. But, he said, “I doubt they are going
to want to vote on it any time soon. They will probably want to chew over
this for a while and maybe make a counter-counter-proposal.” Certain to weigh
in as time goes on will be liberal organizations that have historically
fought for bilingual education, as well as conservatives who have urged their
complete abolition. Once the issue finally gets to public hearings, the state
board should get all the attention it can stand.



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