OLYMPIA—A Seattle lawmaker is pushing a controversial bill she says will bring non-English-speaking children into the mainstream faster.
But that’s not all it’s meant to do.
Rep. Helen Sommers, a Democrat who represents Seattle’s Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods, admits the bill is also designed to weaken a lawsuit against the Seattle School District – and in turn, a potentially costly suit against the state.
Educators, proponents of bilingual education and many immigrant groups are concerned about the damage they say the bill could do to bilingual-education programs and testified emotionally in opposition at a legislative hearing.
Opponents say the bill would hurt, not help, children with inadequate English skills and undercut the programs they say are most effective for these children.
Transitional bilingual-education programs continue to teach core subjects such as math and science in native languages while students are learning English.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Pam Roach, R-Auburn.
The Sommers bill is “simple economics,” a way to get the school and the state off the legal hot seat, said Julie Hansen, a Spanish tutor and former teacher of English as a second language in Mexico.
She is a member of the Seattle School District’s bilingual advisory committee.
Last month, Evergreen Legal Services sued the Seattle School District on behalf of 18 non-English-speaking students on the ground the district’s bilingual program fails to meet their needs.
More than 350 Seattle students have no instruction in their native languages, according to Evergreen Legal Services, and others don’t get enough. These students often fall far behind in math, science and other subjects while they’re trying to master English, said Evergreen attorney Dan Ford.
Under present law, districts are required to provide transitional bilingual programs unless they can prove that such a program is “not practicable.”
One of the lawsuit’s major claims is that a more extensive bilingual program would be practical in the Seattle School District, but just isn’t being done.
The district has since sued the state, saying that if the claim is true, it’s because the district isn’t getting enough support to do better. State money pays for 45 percent of the district’s bilingual-education program.
Ford said Sommers’ bill is crucial to the suit against the Seattle School District because it would make transitional bilingual education one of many options districts could choose rather than a requirement as present law provides.
The change would cut the legal foundation for one of the suit’s major claims. By extension, if the district were no longer remiss, the state could not be at fault.
Sommers, also a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the Seattle School District did not request the bill. She has spoken to School Board members about it, she said, but only after introducing it.
The bill has 35 cosponsors, including Rep. Randy Dorn, D-Eatonville, chairman of the House Education Committee.
Dorn said committee members are aware of the bill’s legal implications, but wouldn’t predict the bill’s chances and said only that amendments are likely.
Sommers denies the bill would sacrifice student interests in favor of those of institutions.
A fluent speaker of Spanish, which she learned during 14 years working for an oil company in Venezuela, she believes students would benefit if programs focused more on English. Sommers supports programs such as English as a second language (ESL), in which students learn solely in English without use of their native languages.
Districts across the state are grappling with how best to educate the more than 31,000 students in Washington who attend special English instruction classes – a number that has doubled since 1985. More than 5,000 of these students attend Seattle schools.
Sommers’ proposal brought emotional and overwhelmingly negative testimony from immigrants, teachers, professors and others.
Rep. Velma Veloria, D-Seattle, who immigrated to the United States in 1961, told of being taunted in grade school because of her limited English, being placed in remedial reading classes in junior and senior high and said that ” instead of being encouraged to go to college, I was tracked for vocational school.”
Veloria urged the House Education Committee to keep transitional bilingual instruction as the recommended model.
Students who lack native-language instruction fall far behind in other subjects during the years they’re mastering English, said James Rigney, a bilingual-education instructor at Davis High School in Yakima. This impedes their success in later years, he said.
Current research overwhelmingly supports bilingual programs, said James Vasquez, director of the University of Washington’s ESL and bilingual programs.
Dropouts decline, in some cases dramatically, when the native language is used to reinforce English learning, he said.
Sommers’ few supporters at the hearing questioned the practicality of transitional bilingual education in diverse districts such as Seattle, which can have up to 70 languages and dialects.
Some smaller districts may have similar problems.
Aida Kouyoumjian, English as a second language specialist and coordinator at the Issaquah School District, testified in support of the bill, feeling that finding teachers or tutors in all 15 languages in her district would be impossible.
She acknowledged that non-native language students do struggle, especially in science and social studies, in her schools, where students learn totally in English and are main-streamed with other students in all other classes.
Some educators say the bill would have little effect on other suburban districts because of the small number of students who need bilingual programs. In Shoreline School District, 275 of 9,500 students are bilingual, and of the 33 languages represented, no language dominates, said ESL coordinator Pat Shiveley.
Shiveley said the numbers are not “sufficient” to warrant a transitional program, and that bilingual students are taught math and science in simplified English.
— Snohomish County bureau reporter Vanessa Ho contributed to this report.