SACRAMENTO — Hoping to weaken support f or an initiative on the June ballot, a Democratic-controlled Assembly committee yesterday approved a long-stalled bill giving local school districts more control over bilingual education.

The bill, SB 6 by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on a party-line, 11-5 vote with all of the support coming from Democrats and all of the opposition from Republicans.

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles, helped round up votes from some reluctant Democrats, who wanted a provision making it more likely that students with limited English would be taught in their native language.

Proposition 227 on the June ballot, sponsored by businessman Ron Unz,
would eliminate most bilingual education programs that teach students in their native language for up to seven years, replacing them with a crash course in English lasting about a year.

“I support Dede Alpert’s bill not because it is perfect, but because,
darn it, one of the reasons that people have argued for Unz is that they say the Legislature has failed to act,” said Villaraigosa.

Although the election on June 2 is only two months away, the speaker said he believes there is still time to convince the public there is no need for the “meat-ax approach” of Proposition 227 if the Legislature has enacted an alternative.

“I think we will get this to the governor’s desk, and if we do it’s up to the governor,” said Villaraigosa.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has not taken a position on Proposition 227 or the Alpert bill. If Alpert’s bill becomes law, the measure would be voided by the passage of Proposition 227 because votes of the people take precedence over legislative action.

Alpert’s bill cleared the Senate last year but stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, mainly because of opposition from Latino legislators.
Even some ardent supporters of bilingual education acknowledged that the state program needed reform.

Meanwhile, Unz has gathered enough signatures to place his initiative on the June ballot. A statewide Field Poll last month found that 70 percent of likely voters support the initiative, while 20 percent are opposed and 10 percent undecided.

Alpert said she once thought that when her bill reached the Assembly floor, it might get votes from 10 or 12 Republicans who preferred local control to the sheltered English immersion program that would be imposed by Proposition 227.

“They seem to be backing off doing anything,” Alpert said yesterday.

Some Republicans say that a court decision last month, followed by a unanimous vote of the state Board of Education, eliminated the state policy on bilingual education, giving local districts more flexibility to make their own decisions.

Unz and the initiative co-chair, Orange County teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman,
oppose the Alpert bill because it would allow bilingual education programs as an option for local school districts.

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