A Hard Lesson in Bilingual Education

Schools: first-term Assemblyman came close to winning decade-old reform battle. He says he learned from the defeat and believes compromise between factions can be reached next year.

After nearly a decade of partisan wrangling, this was to be the year California lawmakers remade bilingual education.

But in mounting an unsuccessful charge to do just that, a novice Republican assemblyman found that the essential dispute over how best to teach children while they master English is as virulently divisive as it ever was.

First-term Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) had been determinedly optimistic in February that he could draft a reform bill that would draw support from both native-language advocates and supporters of English-only instruction.

He didn’t want to prevent school districts from teaching children in the language they hear at home, yet he believed they needed the flexibility to show that English-language instruction could work just as well.

“I’m looking for true reform of this program,” he said when he introduced the bill last spring. “It’s not a political issue. It has to be an educational issue.”

In the end, however, compromises agreed to by Firestone and his Democratic co-author, Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), to keep the bill alive made it too weak to live.

The pair tried to woo advocates of bilingual education by agreeing to strengthen the role of the state Department of Education in determining how districts can best serve their students.

That cost them support from native-language critics, who have blamed the Department of Education for standing in the way of instruction in English and propping up programs that have failed to produce academic success.

As a result, the heavily amended reform bill died in the Senate Appropriations Committee hours before the end of the 1996 legislative session this month, for want of two votes. It became the sixth such reform bill in nine years to fail.

Ironically, the defeat emerged from an unusual political alliance, when two Republicans who thought the bill did not do enough to wipe out the current, highly regulated system joined Democrats who voted against it because it eliminated regulations they felt protected students’ rights.

Now Firestone and Alpert say they want to tackle the issue again next year, assuming Firestone is reelected to the Assembly and Alpert, who because of term limits is leaving the Assembly, wins a seat in the Senate. But they have yet to figure out a strategy for bridging the ideological gulf between the two instructional camps.

“We were shot down by the bilingual establishment and the anti-bilingual establishment, from the left and the right,” Firestone said. “I learned some political lessons and I think I will be better able to accomplish this next year.”

Alpert agreed with Firestone’s analysis. Still, she said she is confident that a majority of legislators come down somewhere in the middle and can be won over to a bill that reflects a reasonable compromise.

Indeed, 61 members of the Assembly–well over a two-thirds majority–voted for the final version of the bill, which had support from the California Teachers Assn., the California School Boards Assn. and most statewide education groups.

It included many provisions sought by bilingual advocates that would have served to bring nonfluent students into the educational mainstream, requiring, for example, that they be included in the academic skills test the state will soon begin developing.

And had the entire Senate been given an opportunity to vote on the bill, which died in committee, it would have passed there as well, Alpert and others believe.

“This is hardly the first time that good policy didn’t get through at the end of the session,” Alpert said. “It really needs to be done and with how far we’ve gotten . . . we’ll be at a starting point where I think we could reach consensus and get things through.”

Whether that turns out to be the case will depend, in part, on how legislative races shake out in November. One of the strongest bilingual education advocates in the Senate, Sen. Henry Mello (D-Watsonville), is leaving his seat. But Democrats believe they have a chance of wiping out the Republicans’ narrow majority in the Assembly and adding legislators who are sympathetic to bilingual education.

The other key players in the battle say they want to see improvement in the programs that serve the 1.26 million California students who are not fluent in English. And they say they will support legislation in 1997 to do that.

But predictably, they differ on what a bilingual reform bill should do.

“I cannot even imagine what it will be like to go back to the drawing board next year,” said Melinda Melendez, a Senate consultant who has been involved in bilingual education legislation since the 1970s. “It’s going to be the same group of people and it’s not going to be a whole lot different next year.”

Leaders of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education, which along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund opposed the Firestone-Alpert legislation, said they welcome reform.

But to gain the group’s support, the bill must require children to be taught in their primary language. “Students whose skills in English are not fully developed cannot learn if they do not understand what they are being taught,” said the group’s executive director, Silvina Rubenstein.

That is the sticking point for other key players in the push for reform, like Gloria Matta Tuchman, the Santa Ana teacher who headed the citizens committee Firestone formed to help him write his bill.

Matta Tuchman, whose own school teaches nonfluent children in English from the beginning, also wants to pursue a new bill, but hopes another legislator will carry it because she feels Firestone betrayed her by accepting amendments allowing “the state Department of Education to continue to bully school districts . . . and make it difficult for districts to establish . . . English-based programs.”

With the Legislature stalemated, the state’s bilingual education programs are governed by court cases and state regulations written after the last bilingual education law expired nine years ago.

Courts have held that such programs must be based on sound educational theory, must be given sufficient resources to allow that theory to make a difference and must produce results.

Theory, however, is where the two sides differ. Neither has conclusive proof, but proponents of bilingual education believe that instruction in a child’s primary language for as long as seven years is most effective in allowing them to learn both academic subjects and use of English.

But Firestone and others believe a variety of approaches that allow children to spend more time learning in English can work faster and better, especially given the shortage of bilingual teachers. State officials say 20,000 more bilingual teachers are needed right now.

Meanwhile, division is growing among Latinos over whether their children fare best taught in Spanish or English. A growing number of Latino parents are becoming dissatisfied with instruction that they say holds their children back. The Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity found in a nationwide poll this month that 70% of Latino parents said teaching children to read and write in English should be the schools’ top priority.

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