SACRAMENTO — The state Board of Education voted unanimously yesterday to repeal the state’s bilingual education policy, saying local school districts can now decide how best to teach students who speak limited English.
But while board officials hailed the action as the reversal of a decade-old error, some supporters and opponents of bilingual education said they do not think the board’s action will have much impact.
Yvonne Larsen of San Diego, the state Board of Education president, said that new advisories to govern the funding and oversight of programs for English learners will be considered at a board meeting in April.
“Local school districts will now have the flexibility they need to provide the best English-language instruction to their students,”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, a supporter of bilingual education, said she disagreed with the board’s decision. She issued a statement suggesting that her department may continue to encourage districts to provide bilingual education.
“I have a constitutional responsibility to uphold the law, and until the law is changed formally, I will uphold the existing legal requirements to teach and provide support for all children to develop fluency in English and obtain high academic achievement,” Eastin said.
An initiative placed on the June ballot, Proposition 227, will give voters a chance to decide whether they want to replace bilingual education with a more abridged program to teach them English.
In bilingual education, students can be taught in their native language for up to seven years. The so-called “sheltered English immersion”
program in the initiative would seek to teach students English quickly in about a year, then move them into mainstream classes.
The sponsor of Proposition 227, Ron Unz, the wealthy founder of a Silicon Valley software firm and an unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1994, said the board’s attempt to give local districts more flexibility would have little impact.
“None of these changes going on really have any significant impact on bilingual education in California,” said Unz. “The majority of the bilingual education students are in Los Angeles Unified and a few other large districts where the boards are adamantly committed to bilingual education.”
Holli Thier, spokeswoman for Citizens for an Educated America — No on Proposition 227, said that the board’s attempt to allow local districts more flexibility would be thwarted if Proposition 227 imposes a new state mandate for sheltered English immersion.
“I think it shows exactly why Proposition 227 will not work, why it will fail,” said Thier. “It will outlaw all the local programs.
It doesn’t allow flexibility.”
Rosalia Salinas, a director of curriculum and instruction with the county Office of Education, said she’s not sure what impact the state action will have on San Diego area schools, but it could be minimal.
She said the state board vote appears simply to underscore the flexibility that local schools already have to shape bilingual programs.
“That flexibility is in place right now,” she said yesterday.
The state Department of Education has enforced the state bilingual education requirement by cutting off funds for some districts and placing others,
including San Diego Unified, under close monitoring.
San Diego Unified is one of the districts selected for monitoring under the settlement of a lawsuit charging that the state was not vigorously enforcing its bilingual education requirement. How these districts would be affected will be addressed in the policy proposed next month.
“That’s the more difficult and tricky issue that will be coming back in April to carry out the intent of the board in this new direction,”
said Bill Lucia, state Board of Education executive director.
The state bilingual education law requiring that non-English speaking students be taught in their native language expired in 1986. But the state Board of Education issued a series of policy advisories directing local districts to continue bilingual education.
With the action yesterday, said Lucia, “The board admitted its error in having promulgated policies and regulations a decade ago that were inconsistent with the law.”
Critics such as the watchdog Little Hoover Commission contended that the advisories were improper “underground regulations.” But the agency that controls regulations, the state Office of Administrative Law,
ruled that the advisories were proper.
Last week, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald Robie issued a ruling that opponents of bilingual education said upheld their view. The decision came in a lawsuit filed to prevent an Orange County district from dropping bilingual education and switching to a sheltered English immersion program.
Robie ruled that the state Board of Education had no authority to give the Orange Unified School District a waiver from state bilingual education requirements because the state law had expired in 1986.
Members of the board cited Robie’s ruling, and expert testimony that faster alternatives to bilingual education work, as they voted to rescind the policies yesterday.
“I really resent being put in this position,” said board member Kathryn Dronenburg of El Cajon. But, she added, “I don’t see how (the court ruling) could be clearer.”
The state Board of Education, whose 11 members are appointed by the governor,
granted waivers from the state bilingual education requirement to Orange Unified and three other Orange County districts last year. A school district in Santa Barbara intended to seek a waiver this year.
Robie’s ruling may be further clarified when his final judgment is issued in the weeks ahead. His ruling said that the state still has the authority to audit the use of special funds provided for students with limited English.
Michael Hersher, chief counsel for Eastin’s state Department of Education,
said earlier this week that the audit still gives the state the “power of the purse” over districts that do not provide bilingual education when necessary.
Hersher also said that board approval of the request by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation to rescind the bilingual education policy advisories may have little impact.
“If the state board rescinds the policy, that doesn’t change the law,” said Hersher. “That just takes away an informational tool as to what the law is.”
Robie also said in his ruling that the expiration of the state bilingual education law means that local school districts have the flexibility to use programs allowed by federal law.
In September, a federal court ruled in the Orange Unified lawsuit that federal law requires districts to provide special services for students who do not speak English, but does not specifically require bilingual education.
The federal ruling came on an appeal of Robie’s temporary restraining order against the board waiver granted Orange Unified. The suit was returned to Robie’s court after the federal decision lifted his restraining order.
Staff writer Steve Schmidt and The Associated Press contributed to this report.