School districts add local voice to bilingual debate

SACRAMENTO — The debate over bilingual education may have entered a new phase when the state Board of Education repealed the state policy guidelines for the program.

Some supporters of bilingual education, who opposed the board’s action,
now suggest the move to give school districts control over the programs might take some of the steam out of an initiative on the June 2 ballot that would end most bilingual education.

Proposition 227, sponsored by businessman Ron Unz, would replace bilingual education, in which a student is taught primarily in his or her native language for years, with a sheltered English immersion program lasting about a year.
The opponents say the initiative would end local flexibility.

“Mandating one method is absolutely ridiculous, which is what Proposition 227 would do,” said Maribel Medina of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Unz contends that local flexibility would do little to end failing bilingual education programs because Los Angeles Unified and other large districts have school boards committed to the program.

“Support for our initiative is around 70 percent in the polls,”
said Unz. “I think our initiative probably will end up being the state policy in three months.”

The Board of Education, which voted Thursday to repeal a policy requiring students to be taught in their native language, plans to consider new guidelines next month to let local districts decide whether bilingual education is necessary.

Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, said the board’s repeal of the policy may boost a bill she has been pushing for several years to give districts more control over the use of bilingual education. The bill is viewed as an alternative to the initiative.

“It shouldn’t be just regulations that an appointed state board promulgates,” Alpert said. “It should be statutes that the Legislature votes on.”

A number of school officials in San Diego County welcomed the shift of decision-making to the local level, but they predicted little change in the way they have been educating students who speak limited English.

An administrator with the county’s largest district, San Diego Unified,
said the state action is expected to have little impact on the district’s broad mix of bilingual programs.

Fifty-one of the district’s 118 elementary schools have some type of bilingual program, including some that allow English-speaking students to learn Spanish.

Tim Allen, director of second language education, said the state board action gives San Diego Unified more leeway to shape its own programs. But overall, he said, “It’s not going to change things that much.”

Tom Bishop, superintendent of the Jamul-Dulzura Union School District,
agreed with Allen that the state decision appears to give districts more wiggle room. “It appears the locals got a little more control — and that’s welcome,” he said.

Oceanside schools Superintendent Ken Noonan called the step toward local control “a very good move in the right direction.”

He said the former state policy of mandating native language instruction was “too extreme” and impossible to implement when a district has students whose native languages range from Vietnamese to Laotian to Hungarian.

Oceanside educates its English learners through native-language instruction,
English as a second language classes and sheltered immersion — instruction in English that is enhanced with visuals and other techniques.

Carlsbad Superintendent Cheryl Ernst said the action would have little effect on her district’s schools. Carlsbad, like Oceanside, uses a variety of strategies to teach English learners.

At the Valley Center Union school district, Lucy Haines, director of special projects, doubts the board’s decision will make a difference in the district’s bilingual program.

“Parents have always had the choice, and I don’t see with the regulations in place or out of place how that will change things much in our district,”
she said. “Parents chose what kind of instructional program they want,
and they feel comfortable with the one we have been offering.”

Staff writers Steve Schmidt, Anna Cearley and Chris Moran contributed to this report.



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