Five years after the expiration of California laws governing the education of students who speak little or no English, the debate over the best way to teach such children has been reignited by a comprehensive bill requiring school districts to offer bilingual academic programs.
The California Language Minority Act, sponsored by state Sen. Henry J. Mello (D-Santa Cruz) and backed by a coalition of school districts, immigrant-advocate groups and educators, was passed in the waning days of the last legislative session and is now on Gov. Pete Wilson’s desk. The governor has until the end of the month to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
The bill — the first bilingual education measure to reach Wilson as governor
— requires that schools with 100 or more students who speak the same primary language other than English offer at least one of three styles of bilingual
education, using funding currently provided by the state and federal government.
Since the state’s bilingual education law lapsed in 1987, school districts have been guided by state Department of Education interpretations of court cases and a more general federal law requiring only that students who do not speak English get an equal education. Many school officials have complained that the state education department guidelines and federal law have amounted to a stopgap system that is vague and inflexible and has resulted in wide district-by-district variations in program quality.
Essentially, the traditional bilingual approach calls for students who lack English fluency to be taught academic subjects in their native languages while they build English skills. The goal for such students is to transfer into a school’s regular programs within a few years.
Advocates of the Mello bill say it represents the best chance of ensuring the success of the 1.7 million pupils — 34% of California students in kindergarten through 12th grade — who live in homes where a language other than English is spoken. They contend that the bill provides guidelines that are clearer, more consistent and more flexible.
“We cannot afford to turn our backs on this large and rapidly growing population,” said Benjamin Lopez, a lobbyist for California Rural Legal Assistance and one of the bill’s chief backers. “If these children cannot understand the subjects being taught them in English, they cannot possibly learn them. Their future progress will lead to dropping out, to an unsuccessful job search and to a difficult adult life.”
But opponents — including Maureen DiMarco, the governor’s secretary of child development and education — say the measure could make bilingual education more costly and does not allow local school districts sufficient leeway to tailor a program to fit their students’ needs.
The bill also has drawn fire from those who believe youngsters should be taught primarily in English.
“We believe that the focus of the state’s bilingual program should be to teach all children in English as quickly as possible. All other languages should be taught as a separate subject,” said Sally Peterson, a veteran San Fernando Valley kindergarten teacher who five years ago founded the Learning English Advocates Drive (LEAD).
Peterson said she does not object to bilingual education per se but believes other methods — including putting youngsters into English-only classes — are preferable and can be more effective for some students. She believes that bilingual education delays English acquisition, a point that is disputed by others.
Her group, along with U.S. English, a Washington-based organization, last week launched a lobbying blitz aimed at persuading the governor to veto the bill. Peterson said LEAD’s goal is to have 50,000 postcards sent to Wilson by month’s end. Enrique M. Cubillos of U.S. English said his organization sent letters to 30,000 recent donors in California, urging them to contact Wilson as well.
The letters are aimed at countering the broad backing garnered by the Mello bill. Among the endorsers of the measure are the California Congress of Parents, Teachers and Students, the California Assn. for Bilingual Education, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, several county offices of education and several school districts. They include San Diego, Sacramento, Montebello, El Monte, Lennox, Duarte, Fullerton, Santa Ana, Ventura, Moorpark and Oxnard.
The state education department, though it helped develop the bill, has not taken a position on it in its present form.
Under the provisions of the legislation, schools with 100 or more students speaking the same non-English language would be required to offer either a traditional bilingual program or an increasingly popular method called “two-way bilingual.” The traditional method offers academic instruction by teachers who can speak to students in their native language, while the two-way approach also enables native English-speakers to learn a second language. A third option would allow schools to design their own program, subject to state approval.
Schools with more than 50 students who speak various languages other than English would be required to offer a program with bilingual components but not in a separate classroom, as required with larger numbers of non-English students. Schools with fewer than 50 of these students would be required only to provide individual support services.
These provisions are more explicit than current guidelines but less stringent than the 1987 law, which required schools to provide instruction in students’ native language whenever there were at least 10 pupils in a grade with a common primary language other than English.
All schools would be required to assess students’ language development needs and test the bilingual education students’ progress at least once every two years. As they now may, parents could choose whether to enroll their children in a bilingual or a regular program, and a student could remain in a bilingual class for no more than six years.
The bill’s proponents said the range of options will help districts cope with the acute shortage of qualified bilingual instructors in California. According to the state education department, 19,000 more bilingual teachers are needed.
At the heart of the debate over the Mello legislation lie passionate arguments over whether bilingual education is effective.
Lopez, of California Rural Legal Assistance, and other bilingual advocates cite a 1991 U.S. Department of Education study that for four years tracked the academic progress of Spanish-speaking students in California, Texas, Florida, New York and New Jersey in several types of programs. It concluded that students with limited English proficiency improved their skills in mathematics, English language and reading as fast as or faster than students in the general population.
“Providing substantial instruction in the child’s primary language does not impede the learning of English or reading skills,” said the study, which also found English-only instruction to be effective in the early grades.
Eugene E. Garcia, co-director of the federally funded National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, based at UC Santa Cruz, said researchers have not found alternatives that “have generated the same kind of academic achievement that bilingual programs do. . . . Nor do I know of any bilingual program anywhere that does not include English.”
Garcia said the goal of bilingual education is not to discourage students from learning English, as opponents often charge, but to enable them to progress academically while acquiring the new language.
He said the Mello bill, while not perfect, represents a big improvement over the current education department regulations and the expired statutes, which were allowed to lapse under Gov. George Deukmejian.
But DiMarco, whose office worked with Mello on the bill, said she nonetheless believes the measure would hamstring local districts and limit parents’ choices about how best to educate students who are in the process of learning English.
Foreign Languages in the Schools
Since 1987, the number of students who speak limited English in California’s public elementary and high schools has grown by nearly 400,000, to 986,462.
These figures show the growth in the 10 largest language groups.
LANGUAGE 1987 1991 % INCREASE Spanish 449,308 755,359 68 Vietnamese 30,906 40,477 31 Cantonese 19,781 21,498 9 Hmong 10,780 21,060 95 Cambodian 15,665 20,055 28 Pilipino 14,381 18,146 26 Korean 10,738 14,932 39 Lao 10,283 12,430 21 Armenian 2,660 11,399 329 Mandarin 7,334 8,386 14
Source: California Department of Education, June, 1992.