Changes likely for schools with bilingual students

REFORMS: Voters will do it if Legislature doesn't, Assemblyman Firestone says.

SACRAMENTO—With the threat of an initiative looming, the Legislature appears poised to enact a comprehensive reform of bilingual education.

Bilingual education, the means by which school districts teach the 20 percent of California schoolchildren who have limited English proficiency, has been a controversial subject for years. But until this year Latino groups and others have blocked attempts to tinker with the current system, which emphasizes instruction in a student’s primary language until he or she is proficient in English.

Frustration over the Legislature’s inaction last year on a reform bill that passed the Assembly but was killed in a Senate committee has led businessman Ron Unz to draft an initiative that would require all public school instruction be conducted in English. The initiative would allow up to one year of intensive English-immersion instruction for children not fluent in English.

Unz, a wealthy Silicon Valley conservative who challenged Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 GOP primary, received the go-ahead from the secretary of state this month to circulate the initiative. He has until Dec. 1 to collect 433, 000 signatures of registered voters to qualify the measure for the June 1998 ballot.

Against that background, the Assembly Education Committee this week approved SB 6, known as the Firestone-Alpert English Learners Education Act. The bill has already passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote.

The measure would give each school district the flexibility to design its own plan and then hold the districts accountable for their level of success in moving children from bilingual to English-only instruction.

It does require that all districts provide daily instruction in English and prohibits their programs from resulting in the segregation of students. A statewide English development test would be created to measure the success of district programs.

Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos, one of the co-authors, said Thursday the Unz initiative demonstrates how strongly the public wants something done to change the current system.

“The people are going to want something done,” he said. “The Legislature should act deliberately and productively. If it doesn’t, we’ll get an initiative that’s less deliberate and less productive. It raises the same old question: Is the Legislature serious?”

The key test will come in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which, Firestone noted, has “been fairly unpredictable.” If the bill gets through there, he said, he is confident of passage on the Assembly floor.

Last year’s reform bill was especially hurt by a lack of support from liberals.

Firestone said this year’s bill has a better chance of getting support from Latinos because the organization English Only, seen by many Latinos as exclusionary and anti-Latino, has weighed in against the bill. Last year, the group supported Firestone’s reform legislation.

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