Talking May Get Louder About Bilingual Education-Topic Here If Calif. Measure Passes

If California’s voters tomorrow approve a controversial measure to end bilingual education in the public schools, it could spark efforts to pass similar laws in this state, according to Washington legislators and educators.

California Proposition 227 would replace bilingual education with an intensive, one-year English immersion program, after which students would study all subjects in English.

“If anything passes in California, then that gives credence to the discussion,” said state Rep. Peggy Johnson, R-Shelton, who chairs the House Education Committee.

Harold Hochstatter, R-Moses Lake, the Senate Education Committee chairman who opposes bilingual education, agrees.

“Yes, it will help,” he said of the possible passage of 227. “I’m watching it intensely.”

Neither lawmaker has specific legislation planned, but conservatives in the Legislature and elsewhere are generally skeptical of bilingual education. In a couple of months, the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation expects to release a study that questions the effectiveness of Washington’s bilingual-education programs, along with other state education expenditures, said Bob Williams, president of the Olympia-based group.

Supporters of bilingual education say it will produce graduates literate in two languages and conversant with two cultures. Opponents say tax dollars should not be spent on the preservation of native languages and cultures.

How long for bilingual?

Key to the debate is how long each student’s bilingual education lasts.

Proponents of Proposition 227 – and Washington legislators such as Hochstatter – think students should learn English as quickly as possible in immersion classes, and then move into regular classrooms.

Supporters of more extensive bilingual education, by contrast, think students should be able to do course work in their native languages for a longer period, while studying English in preparation for entering mainstream classrooms.

In Washington, nearly one-fourth of the state’s bilingual students have been in the program four or more years, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, though the program’s benchmark for getting youngsters into mainstream classes is three years.

The California vote will gauge the breadth of dissatisfaction with the system. Recent polls indicate Proposition 227 is likely to pass, and there also is polling evidence that a majority of Latino families, who make up California’s largest language minority, say the most important thing for their children is learning English, not bilingual education. Proponents of Proposition 227 have used that data as a centerpiece of their campaign.

“Parents have really indicated that that’s what they want for their children,” said Johnson, referring to comments from her own constituents. English is essential for success in school and business, she said.

A civil-rights issue?

In 1968, when the federal Bilingual Education Act was written, its goal was to give every child equal access to education, despite limited ability in English.

If the California proposal passes, it’s likely to be challenged on civil-rights grounds, alleging it restricts access to education, said Dick Devlin, spokesman for the federal Department of Education’s office in Seattle.

Despite the polarized arguments about bilingual education, what goes on in classrooms varies widely in different states and in different districts within states. The Seattle and Yakima districts, which have the largest bilingual enrollment in Washington, approach the problem much differently because of differences in their student populations.

Yakima deals almost entirely with students who are Spanish-speaking, which makes the task easier.

Seattle, with a much larger overall enrollment and students who speak about 80 languages, places them in bilingual orientation centers at a handful of schools. They take English-as-a-second-language instruction there, and at the end of a year – or sooner, if possible – students move on to regular classes in other schools. Most still get help in their native languages, either from the teacher or a teacher’s aide, something that’s also true in Yakima.

Desire for flexibility

Supporters of the current system want to preserve that flexibility to solve different problems in different ways, and they say a one-size-fits-all mandate won’t work.

“Legislation and laws sometimes aren’t needed. Sometimes they’re the worst thing we can do,” said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, ranking minority member of the Senate Education Committee.

In practice, it’s hard to tell what works best in teaching English to non-native speakers. Because of a chronic shortage of bilingual teachers, many youngsters who need bilingual services don’t get them, so they fall behind in academics and do poorly on tests, said Alice Lara, who directs bilingual programs for the Yakima School District. Then, she says, bilingual education
often gets blamed.

Conversely, intensive English classes, as the California ballot measure would require, may not work for everyone. Immersion classes work best for students who were already able to read and write in their native languages. Immigrant children and sometimes the children of migrant workers who enter school unable to read in their native languages need much longer to succeed, said Mary Kyle, manager of the Seattle School District’s bilingual program.

Dick Lilly’s phone message number is 206-464-2479. His e-mail address is: Bilingual education: ——————————- How it’s paid for

About 54,000 students – roughly 5.5 percent of Washington’s public-school students – were in the transitional bilingual program last year. That was almost triple the 1985 enrollment, because of a growing immigrant population and Latinos from California.

Seattle, the state’s largest district with 47,000 students last year, had about 5,500 students in its bilingual program, or almost 12 percent of its student population. In Yakima, 4,200 – nearly one-third of the district’s students – were in the bilingual program, according to state figures.

The state pays districts about $ 550 per bilingual student, or nearly $ 30 million last year. That isn’t generally enough to cover districts’ costs. Seattle, for example, spends an average of more than $ 2,000 extra per year per bilingual-program student, including about $ 1,500 from the property-tax levy.

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