SACRAMENTO — The state Board of Education unanimously agreed on a new policy for educating the state’s English learners Wednesday that further backs away from bilingual education and throws more control to local school districts.
The policy shift — which began at a board of education meeting last month — could allow districts more freedom to dump bilingual education programs that use primary languages, such as Spanish, in favor of English-based efforts.
The board formally dropped a regulation that required school districts to offer instruction in the student’s primary language or seek special waivers from the state.
“A bright new era of opportunity for the educational success of English learners is upon us,” said Yvonne Larsen, board president.
“California’s children will no longer be trapped by the failed bilingual education policies of the past.”
The board’s new guidelines press local school districts to “effectively and efficiently” teach English to the 1.4 million children who speak little or no English in California’s public schools. The guidelines emphasize sound educational theory, parental involvement, local flexibility and adequate resources to implement local plans.
The board also rescinded several outdated regulations that directed school districts to implement bilingual education programs.
The state policy change comes at a time when bilingual education is under fire from Proposition 227, a June ballot initiative that would dismantle bilingual education in California’s public schools in favor of a one-year sheltered English immersion program. If the initiative passes and survives court challenges it would take precedence over other state law and the board’s new guidelines.
During the board meeting, state school Superintendent Delaine Eastin urged members to ensure that students don’t fall behind in core subjects while they learn English. But the board rejected her effort to add a provision that would have required districts to show that their students are achieving academically.
Eastin criticized the board for giving districts more flexibility without ensuring academic achievement.
Bilingual educators blasted the board’s action for undermining primary language instruction, which might let students slip through the cracks.
“Flexibility has always been there,” said Maria Quezada, president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators. “But school districts have not had the flexibility to let children fail — this certainly opens the door to that.”
About 30 percent of California’s English learners — or 400,000 students
— are in bilingual programs that use native languages, such as Spanish.
The bulk of the English learners are already in English-based programs.
The board of education vowed last month to scrap the old policy after the Pacific Legal Foundation petitioned members to drop outdated regulations.
The state was using regulations that had expired in 1987 to require bilingual education programs.
The state’s action could deflate support for Prop. 227 because that initiative calls for schools across California to implement one model over all others.
But proponents insisted that the board’s action does not undermine the need to pass the June 2 initiative.
“We’re pleased that the state board is moving in a direction away from bilingual education,” said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for the Yes on Proposition 227 campaign. “Prop. 227 is certainly necessary in order to change the system as a whole.”
But Prop. 227 opponents hope the board’s actions will make the initiative seem extreme.
“I think this is a continuation of the realization that we need local control,” said Holli Thier, spokeswoman for the No on Prop. 227 campaign. “School districts need flexibility and not a 180-day, sink or swim, one-size-fits-all straitjacket.”
The board also based its policy change on a recent ruling in Sacramento Superior Court in Quiroz vs. the Orange Unified School District. The judge found that the state has no authority to require districts to mandate a specific type of program for English learners.
But Eastin disagreed with the board’s interpretation of the ruling.
She issued a memo on March 18 that said the ruling upholds the “requirement of primary language instruction ‘when necessary'” and she cautioned districts not to change programs until state policies are more settled.
Andrea Lampros covers education and Prop. 227. You can reach her at 925-943-8155 or P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.