Senate: Fix English skills

LEGISLATION: Bill would give California schools more leeway to develop bilingual programs, backers say.

SACRAMENTO, CA—The state Senate Thursday approved a sweeping proposal to overhaul the state’s system for teaching 1.3 million children with limited English skills.

Backers said the bill is intended to give local school districts more flexibility in developing bilingual education programs. But opponents said the measure would actually hurt students because schools would not be required to provide adequate instruction in the students’ first language.

In a busy day, senators also approved local flood control measures for Sacramento and Yuba counties, but rejected a controversial bill to ban insurance industry political contributions to the state’s insurance commissioner.

According to a Senate staff analysis, about 1.3 million students in California public schools are considered “limited English proficient” _ and their numbers are growing fast. Dozens of different first languages are involved, although about 77 percent of the “limited English proficient” students speak Spanish.

On a bipartisan, 25-11 vote, the Senate approved a bill by Sen. Deirdre Alpert, D-Coronado, that Alpert said would give school districts more flexibility with their bilingual programs but also hold the districts accountable for results.

Alpert said many students with limited English skills are not receiving special services and that school districts aren’t held accountable. She alsorebutted claims that her bill would eliminate teaching in a student’s primary language or deny English learners equal access to the schools.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. This would provide school districts the flexibility to design the instructional program best suited to the needs of their English learners, provided that it is based on sound educational theory,” she said.

But opponents predicted the legislation would continue to leave many English-learning students out in the cold, often without enough instruction in their primary language to fully understand grammar and language usage.

Sen. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, said she wants students to learn English and learn it as soon as possible. But she said the bill did not go far enough to ensure that schools districts use bilingual funds properly and provide adequate programs.

“They (the English learning students) are still denied equal access to education, and that is really the bottom line,” said Solis.

Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, said school districts would not be held accountable and would have “all the leeway” to refuse to provide adequate primary language instruction to students as they also learn English.

“I am one who believes that every child should be taught English as expeditiously as possible, because that is the language in which they will compete. But this bill will do more harm to the limited English student population,” Polanco said.

The bill now goes to the Assembly, where a similar measure recently was defeated by a two-vote margin in committee.

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