Competing Bills in Bilingual Education Dispute to be Weighed

Marking yet another round in California’s long fight over bilingual
education, the Senate Education Committee today will consider two competing bills to govern the schooling of children who speak little or no English.

One measure, by Sen. Henry J. Mello (D-Santa Cruz), would under most circumstances require districts to provide bilingual instruction — teaching academic subjects to youngsters in their native language until they learn English well enough to succeed in regular classrooms. It is nearly identical to a measure vetoed last fall by Gov. Pete Wilson.

The other bill, by Sen. Rebecca Morgan (R-Los Altos), would allow local districts to decide the best approach for their students, including programs that rely more heavily on teaching in English. It would require the state to develop standards to assess local program effectiveness.

The Morgan bill answers the Wilson Administration’s insistence on maximum flexibility for districts. But it has sparked opposition from several important advocacy groups who fear that some local boards, left to their own devices in a period of shrinking school budgets, would cut back on efforts to help these students, described by both bills as “English learners.”

“In a battle for funds, these kids would be first on the chopping block,” said Cathie Douglas, an aide to Mello.

Morgan said her proposal would “abolish the ‘one-size-fits-all’ program mandated by the Department of Education” in favor of allowing educators to try different approaches as long as they produce results.

The committee debate was expected to be intense and reflect the deep divisions over how to educate the growing numbers of students from immigrant families.

In the almost 20 years since a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California schools must provide non-English speaking students with equal access to education, bilingual programs have been the state-required solution. Controversial state legislation governing how children with limited English proficiency were to be taught expired in 1987 and replacement measures passed by the Legislature met with gubernatorial vetoes from George Deukmejian and Wilson.

Since the legislation lapsed, the Department of Education has required school districts to follow its regulations, based primarily on court cases and the federal Equal Education Opportunities Act. In essence, districts with students who have not yet learned English well enough to succeed in regular classrooms must offer some form of bilingual education or obtain state waivers. School officials have complained that the stopgap system is vague and inflexible and has led to wide variations in program quality.

Attempts to find a solution have engendered emotional debates over the merits of bilingual education. Opponents argue that it is costly and, by teaching students in their native language for several years, slows their progress to English fluency. But supporters, sensitive to the anti-immigrant strains that sometimes accompany the debate, say that bilingual education is the best way to ensure that such students keep pace academically with their English-speaking peers.

In the 1991-92 school year, almost 20% of California’s 5 million public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade were classified as having limited English proficiency, and 34% of all students came from homes where English was not the primary language. Although there are almost 100 languages spoken by students in the public school system, Spanish is the native tongue for 77% of those who have not learned English.

In Los Angeles County, 32% of the 1.4 million public school students had limited English proficiency.

A 1992 study found that the state’s programs have been hampered by shortages in funds and the numbers of teachers fluent in other languages. California needs at least 20,000 more bilingual teachers today, according to the Department of Education. Further, there has been no satisfactory system of assessing the academic progress of students not proficient in English, a situation that the Mello and Morgan proposals seek to remedy.

Although there is little consensus on how best to teach these students, both sides agree that California’s future depends in large part on how well schools prepare them to take their place in society. They disagree on methods and priorities.

Morgan’s bill puts a priority on mastering English as quickly as possible.

“We do a major disservice to students by leaving them (in bilingual education
classes) for four, five and six years,” Morgan said. “Schools should be able to demonstrate that their students are making progress as English learners, and it shouldn’t take forever.”

Her legislation would allow districts to design their own approach, based on criteria to be developed by the Department of Education. School and district advisory committees would be established. Students would be tested yearly, and if more than 33% of those in a school district make insufficient progress toward specific goals for two consecutive years, the state would step in with an improvement plan. Parents would be notified of the plan for their children in writing and could request an alternative approach.

Mello’s measure has found favor with several advocacy groups, including the California Assn. for Bilingual Education. The group’s president, Terry Delgado, participated in a task force that advised Morgan in fashioning her bill, but Delgado said she is disappointed with the result.

“It is clear that the purpose of this bill was to give districts more flexibility, but I think it’s dangerous to give them carte blanche,” Delgado said.

She said the Mello proposal allows districts sufficient leeway while ensuring that English learners’ educational and cultural needs will be met.

Under the Mello bill, schools with 100 or more students speaking the same foreign language would be required to offer either a traditional bilingual program or the increasingly popular “two-way bilingual” program, which enables native English speakers to get academic instruction in a foreign language. A third option would be to implement a specially designed program, subject to state approval.

Schools with more than 50 students who speak various languages would be required to design a program of academic instruction to include them, while schools with fewer than 50 of these students would be required only to provide individual support services.

While the schools must provide the programs, parents alone could decide whether to allow their children to participate in them, and they could change their decision at any time.

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