State revokes bilingual mandate

Let districts decide, education panel says

Long-standing policies requiring bilingual education were rescinded Thursday by the state Board of Education, giving local districts the power to decide how best to educate their limited-English-proficient students.

The unexpected action means districts statewide will be able to alter their programs for English learners, and even institute English-only programs,
without previously required waivers from the state board.

“Local school districts will now have the flexibility they need to provide the best English language instruction to their students,”
board President Yvonne W. Larsen said in a statement.

The unanimous action comes just three months before California voters will consider Proposition 227, a ballot initiative that would virtually end bilingual education.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said she disagrees with Thursday’s decision by the board, which sets California’s education policy.

“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 in a statement.

Other advocates of bilingual education — the use of students’ native languages — also warned that districts could run afoul of federal law if they “do whatever they want.”

While there is no federal mandate for bilingual education, federal law does require that limited-English speakers receive some special assistance to access the regular school curriculum.

“School districts should not move right now to destroy their bilingual education programs and interpret the decision by the state board as giving them carte blanche to do whatever they want,” said Olga Sanchez, a legislative staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund who testified at Thursday’s hearing.

The state board’s action came in response to a petition filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation in February that asked the board to withdraw its bilingual education policies, arguing they were based on a law that no longer exists.

The state’s 1976 bilingual education act — which required primary language instruction for non-English speakers — expired in 1986, but the state continued to force districts to provide native language instruction, saying it was one of the “general purposes” of the law.

Last month, though, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald B. Robie ruled that the general purpose of the act was to “effectively and efficiently as possible develop in each child fluency in English” and that primary language instruction was not required.

In a case involving an Orange County school district, Robie said local districts must provide language instruction in a child’s native tongue “when necessary” and that the state board was acting “contrary to law”
in issuing waivers.

Bill Lucia, executive director of the state board, said the panel considered Robie’s ruling in deciding to revoke the waivers requirement.

“It’s clear that primary language is not mandated by state law and the only law that remains is federal law,” Lucia said.

But “this doesn’t say forevermore that primary language is off the map,” he added. “It’s not favoring any approach. It’s saying a local school board knows best and is accountable, ultimately, under federal law.”

While several school districts in Southern California have sought state board waivers to implement English-only programs for their limited-English students, no district in the Sacramento region has done so.

Many local districts use a combination of approaches, from teaching students academic subjects in their native languages to using bilingual aides. Statewide,
according to the Department of Education, about one-third of limited-English-proficient students receive instruction in their primary languages.

The Elk Grove Unified District, for instance, has one of several types of waivers that allows it to teach students primarily in English but use bilingual aides to help them.

Superintendent Dave Gordon said the state board’s decision will have no impact on the district’s program.

Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Sharon Browne called Thursday’s board action “a very far-reaching decision that impacts 1.3 million (limited-English-proficient)
students throughout the state of California.”

Also interested were advocates on both sides of Proposition 227, the June ballot initiative forwarded by Ron Unz that would replace bilingual education statewide with English-only instruction.

“This is encouraging news in general. However, the ruling will have a fairly negligible practical effect. Those large school districts that have entrenched bureaucracies have no incentive to change their structure,”
said initiative spokeswoman Sherri Annis.

Citizens for an Educated America, a coalition opposing the initiative,
had a different view.

“This decision shows school districts should be given more choice and the Unz initiative would mandate a program across the state of California,”
said spokeswoman Kathleen Barca.

Lucia said the state board will consider at its April meeting a new board policy and program to fund and provide oversight for programs for students learning English. But he said the board will not reverse its direction to leave program decisions to local districts.

Staff writer Edgar Sanchez contributed to this report.

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