County's Bilingual Debate Goes On

Educators view state law as too restrictive, call for some changes

Orange County educators said Thursday that changes are needed in the state’s bilingual education law, which many called overly restrictive.

Local educators indicated that it is the state law, not federal regulations, which does not allow “flexibility” in how students with few English skills are to be taught.

Their comments came after U. S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett, in a New York speech on Thursday, said there had been “no evidence” that English-deficient students have benefited from bilingual programs. Bennett called for federal changes that would allow the states more leeway in deciding how bilingual-education grants are used.

Blame State Law

But several Orange County educators, including supporters of bilingual education, said that in California, state law itself is the problem — not federal strings.

The two-language teaching program has been controversial for many years in Orange County. And the current debate at the national level on changing bilingual education has fueled more of the same in the county. Some county educators said Thursday that they favor Bennett’s call for allowing local districts more “flexibility” in how they teach students who can speak little or no English.

California law requires that students unable to speak English be provided teachers who can conduct the class in the students’ native tongue as well as English. The law says that English should be the primary language of one-third of the students in such classes, but no students are to be forced to attend two-language classes.

The state’s implementation of the bilingual system has caused continuing friction in Orange County schools. For instance, the Santa Ana school system in 1982 temporarily had some of its school funds withheld when state officials charged that the system wasn’t providing enough qualified bilingual teachers.

Changes Fail to Pass

Since 1980, several legislative changes have been proposed but have not passed. Even some supporters of the existing bilingual education program said Thursday that the state laws are more restrictive than the federal ones.

“California is a little stricter than the federal government,” said S. Ana Garza, an associate professor in Cal State Fullerton’s department of elementary and bilingual education. “This is a problem with it.” Nonetheless, Garza said that the existing bilingual education program is a good and workable one, and “we have data to prove it.”

Jerome Thornsley, superintendent of south Orange County’s Capistrano Unified School District, said he is suspicious of possible political motives that Bennett may have in proposing greater flexibility in the use of federal funds for bilingual education. But Thornsley said he does favor allowing school districts more leeway in deciding the best ways to teach students who speak little English.

‘Illogical Concept’

James Richards, a Santa Ana Unified School District trustee, said California’s existing bilingual education program “is based on the concept that students are taught to be competent in their native language and then they’re expected to convert that competence to English, which I feel is an illogical concept.” Richards said many students in Santa Ana are essentially illiterate in any language and can best be taught by emphasizing English.

Santa Ana Unified, with a 68.9% Latino enrollment, has the highest concentration of non-English-speaking students in Orange County.

“The figure can be very misleading, however,” cautioned Joan Wilkinson, president of the Santa Ana school board. “The demographic percentages are obtained from parents’ surnames. There are many, many Hispanic families who’ve lived in Santa Ana for a long time and who are very fluent in English.”

Ed Dundon, superintendent of the Garden Grove Unified School District, said the district — the largest in Orange County — has had excellent results in teaching non-English-speaking Asian students, without having bilingual teachers available for all of them. “There’s no way we could have provided enough teachers who speak Vietnamese and Cambodian,” Dundon said. “So we essentially had to operate with classes where English is taught as a second language.”

Asian Students Excel

Dundon said the Vietnamese and other Asian students are now top-scoring students in the school district. “Eighty percent of our valedictorians this past school year were Asian,” he pointed out.

State law mandates that special teachers who speak the students’ native language be provided whenever there are 10 or more students in a grade who speak the same language and who have limited or no ability in English. But as Dundon noted, the state allows waivers when teachers can’t be found for some languages.

Dundon said that Garden Grove’s success in teaching Asians to speak and excel academically in the English language suggests that a strict bilingual education program is not necessary.

But a state official disagreed. Norman Gold, bilingual education consultant with the state Department of Education, said: “We’ve heard stories of the successes with Asian students in several districts, but the department has not received any data supporting this.”

Mark Sanchez, senior consultant to Assemblyman Peter Chacon (D-San Diego), said the assemblyman — the “father” of bilingual education laws in California
— would resist any changes that “aren’t tied to accountability.”

Sanchez added: “By accountability, I mean both reward and punishment in dollars. A district should get more money as a reward if it reaches or exceeds its target (for successfully teaching non-English-speaking students). But it should be punished with loss of money if falls below the target. Districts shouldn’t just be allowed to go their way and do what they want to do on this.”

‘Excel Academically’

Sanchez said that many school districts haven’t really fully implemented the state’s bilingual education program. “The evidence shows that where it’s implemented correctly, that students not only become proficient in English but they also excel academically,” Sanchez said.

Wilkinson, president of the Santa Ana school board, said she thinks “good arguments can be made for and against the bilingual education program” as the state now mandates it. “One problem is that data can’t be kept on many children,” she said. “We have many transient children who move in and out of the district, and it’s impossible to tell how they have been helped by the bilingual program.”

Keith Larick, superintendent of Placentia Unified School District, said Thursday that before coming to Orange County, he worked in Oceanside when bilingual education was being implemented there. “Bilingual education was no more successful than other methods of teaching English,” Larick declared.

But Larick, and several others who were interviewed Thursday, acknowledged that supporters, opponents, and those in between on the issue of bilingual education always can point to a myriad of conflicting data to “prove” their point.

“This is a debate for which there is no answer,” Larick said. “It has been going on for 15 years.”

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