SACRAMENTO—A proposal pending before a state education committee that would shift decisions about how to teach bilingual education to local school districts drew the support of English-only advocates for the first time on Thursday.

But the policy committee of the State Board of Education backed away from the plan, with members saying they want to consult further with new state schools Supt. Delaine Eastin — who supports bilingual education — before voting.

Although the proposal was drafted by the board’s staff at the board’s direction, based on hours of testimony at past meetings, committee Chairwoman Yvonne W. Larsen described it Thursday as a “preliminary rewrite” of current policy. She suggested it could change dramatically — or not at all — before a final vote in May or June.

The most controversial portions of the proposed policy call for loosening requirements that non-native speakers be taught in their own languages first, and offering local school districts the option of developing their own approaches, provided they can prove their programs work.

That goes against the recommendations of many language experts who believe that children fall behind when they are taught academic subjects in a language they are still learning. However, opponents of bilingual education can also cite research that shows the opposite — that children immersed in all-English classes gain fluency faster.

Among those favoring the policy revisions was Stanley Diamond, chairman of the California English Campaign and an architect of the English-only initiative approved by voters in 1986.

The state Department of Education has “exceeded their authority in a number of ways (including) . . . threatening to cut off funds to local districts” that do not provide adequate native-language instruction, Diamond said.

“It’s critical that the state board exercise some oversight here,” he said.

Diamond and others have long battled bilingual education as counter to their pro-English crusade. They believe the time may be ripe to scrap the native-language approach, following the passage of Proposition 187, the election of a more conservative Legislature and U.S. Congress, and the recent introduction of a national English-only bill.

But Thursday was not their day, partly because in espousing flexibility, the policy also set up a potential standoff with the Department of Education, which has long embraced native-language instruction and requires every district to offer some form of bilingual education. A top department administrator said the proposal actually violates the state Education Code.

“It has some faulty thinking,” said Assistant Supt. Maria Trejo. “It says districts may choose to use (the native) language, but right now the law says you have to use it . . . in some cases.”

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