SACRAMENTO—After months of rambling public debate, a State Board of Education panel Thursday approved a new bilingual education policy that subtly shifts the emphasis from teaching method to results and promises individual districts the freedom to abandon the native language approach long favored by the state.
Under the new guidelines, districts could use English-only instruction — or any combination of immersion and native language classes — as long as they prove non-fluent students are not being left behind academically.
The action, taken in a unanimous vote of the board’s policy committee, is the first official reaction to rising ire against the state’s approach to educating 1.2 million students who speak little or no English. The full state board is expected to ratify that vote at its meeting today.
“We wanted to convey . . . our desire to move students forward more quickly,” said committee Chairwoman Yvonne Larsen, who added that the issue had prompted more mail and telephone calls than any other the board has considered in recent years. “When you look at the diversity of this state, it’s just not one-size-fits-all.”
Although no public comment was allowed before the vote, the new policy received praise and criticism from all sides, most of it aimed at state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who guided its latest revision and is charged with implementing it.
“This was called a consensus, but it is not a consensus,” said Chuck Acosta, immediate past president of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education, which wants children to be taught first in their native language and transitioned slowly into English.
Acosta complained that the new policy has the same failing as the old — it provides no means for school districts to prove that non-English-speaking children are learning.
“There’s no accountability. . . . There’s all these complaints out there that things aren’t working, but how do you know unless districts are held accountable to submit data on kids?”
To an outsider, the widespread attention that the policy revision drew within the education community seems absurd when actual alterations range from an extra adjective here and there to a musical-chair reordering of the same main points.
But in this particular semantic wrestling match, such minuscule gains and losses are magnified by the years of polarization they represent and their potential to change the way immigrant students are taught.
The new policy loosens the grip of “primary language” instruction, which had been expressed as a preference in the old policy and an option in the new one.
What effect the new policy will have on instruction in California’s bilingual classrooms remains uncertain, and depends on how stringently Eastin enforces its “maximum flexibility” clause — the provisions for districts to chart their own courses.
The past policy allowed all-English instruction as one alternative to native language classes, but some districts have criticized the department for making them jump through bureaucratic hoops if they wanted to try it.
“Delaine has made public statements and private statements that she is very supportive of local flexibility, but many people in the (state education) department continue to impose their will on local districts,” said Jeannine English, director of the state’s Little Hoover Commission, a watchdog group that lambasted bilingual education for its rigidity in a 1993 report.
But Eastin has vowed that her bilingual staff will be reorganized, if necessary, to fortify the department’s commitment to local control.
Eastin said she envisions a system that, instead of telling districts to instruct children in their native language whenever possible, will offer them a “menu” of bilingual program choices, ranging from complete immersion in English to teaching first in native languages.
“We’re trying to say these are various models of best practices. What we really are looking for is: Did the children learn?” she said. “Frankly, if those kids are learning, we’re not going to get in (the district’s) face.”
Eastin acknowledges, however, that the new policy does not include some of her more innovative proposals for speeding up the transfer of bilingual program students into mainstream classes, such as sanctions against districts that do not transition students efficiently and financial bonuses for districts that do.
Measures such as those could be costly and would require legislation, Eastin said. She also supports creation of a statewide testing program to ensure that increased flexibility is not a license to coddle or to ignore limited-English-speaking students.
Bilingual opponents suggest that more dramatic measures, namely lawsuits, will be necessary to force the state to endorse English immersion instruction.
“I see this as a giant step, but the next step will come too,” said Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Santa Ana teacher and former Tustin school board member who ran against Eastin last fall on an anti-bilingual education platform.
“Litigation will come next, and the groups I’m affiliated with will pursue that avenue,” she said.
Tuchman helped the bilingual opposition movement coalesce by drafting a resolution calling for local control that has since been approved by three Southern California school districts and the California Republican Assembly, a conservative statewide political group.
One of those districts, the Westminster School District in Orange County, could force the first test of the Education Department’s commitment to change.
Westminster, which has experienced an enormous influx of Vietnamese-speaking students on top of its high Spanish-speaking population, is under state order to increase the number of its bilingual teachers from seven to 89, a district spokeswoman said.
Dozens of teachers there are taking language classes at local colleges to try to conform to state requirements, teachers union President Carolyn Anderson said.
But after three new school board members were elected last fall on a platform of English-only instruction, the board passed the strongly worded resolution accusing the education department of exceeding its authority and using “coercion, intimidation and threats of immediately cutting off a school district’s funding if they do not immediately comply with its system of bilingual education.”
Virtually identical resolutions have been approved by districts in West Covina and the Hacienda-La Puente area.
Now, emboldened by the new state policy, Westminster is preparing to apply for the option of providing only English immersion — a plan now explicitly allowed in fewer than 20 of the state’s 1,000 districts. Many others have been permitted to offer little or no native language instruction, but only as a stopgap measure, while teachers work to become bilingual or because they have too few students in any one language group.
Bilingual advocates say they are grateful that in a time of anti-immigrant furor, the new policy does not eliminate the opportunity for districts to teach in languages other than English.
“I really thought (the state board was) going to go radical on us . . . wipe out bilingual ed altogether,” said David Sanchez, a bilingual teacher in Santa Maria and member of the California Teachers Assn. board. “You get the impression everybody’s still dancing around it, not really wanting to say keep bilingual or get rid of it either.”
Districts that are strongly committed to primary language instruction, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, are unlikely to take advantage of the new policy’s flexibility.
But for some others, particularly those contemplating alternatives, the policy is a point of departure, ending the limbo prolonged by the eight months of delay between the state board’s first consideration of the issue in November and Thursday’s vote.
The Hawthorne School District has been toying with the idea of trying something different since the state law governing bilingual education expired eight years ago. In its stead, the state board wrote a more liberal policy, but the department crafted guidelines that incorporated many of the law’s provisions.
Like many small districts, Hawthorne has found it impossible to recruit enough bilingual teachers to provide adequate native language instruction. About 3,400 students need bilingual assistance — nearly half the total school population — but only 19 teachers hold bilingual credentials and another two dozen have received special training to teach the foreign language speakers in English.
Over the years, questions about bilingual education have been raised — not by parents of the non-fluent students but by parents of their English-speaking peers, who felt that an inordinate amount of time and money was being spent on the bilingual program. But it seemed futile to respond to those charges, said Hawthorne school board President Jack Yee, until the state board acted.
“We’ve been wondering what the change was going to be,” Yee said. “We’ve been in kind of a quandary waiting.”
Like Hawthorne, districts statewide have been increasingly pressured to reassess their bilingual policies in recent years and that pressure increased after the November passage of Proposition 187 — the anti-illegal immigration initiative. The state board agreed to take up the issue after Gov. Pete Wilson’s veto of a bill last year that attempted to resurrect elements of the expired bilingual education law.
In his veto, Wilson said he would favor policies that mirrored the more liberal federal bilingual law — which mentions native language but emphasizes outcome over method. He also said “consideration of different approaches and policies” should occur at the State Board of Education, not in the Legislature.
After two board meetings dominated by hours of debate between advocates for both sides, the state board in December asked its staff to draft a proposed policy. Further public discussion occurred at subsequent meetings, but Eastin asked the board to postpone a decision until she could study the issue.
In June, on the eve of the state board meeting, Eastin called together some of the key players to draft a compromise, most of which was contained in the policy approved Thursday.