California, long a bellwether state in educational reform, is about to have a major confrontation in the state legislature over bilingual education.

The outcome of the debate will have a profound effect on the state’s educational system, in which more than a half-million elementary and high students (out of 4 million in all) have demonstrated a limited proficiency in English.

The impact is likely to reach beyond California. Numerous other states with large immigrant populations are watching California to see what direction bilingual education will take.

The effort to reform bilingual education is being led by the backers of a recent initiative that made English the official language in California. The initiative won by a wide margin, encouraging its supporters to carry their fight to the state legislature.

After passage of the English-language initiative, bilingual teachers were alarmed lest it mean a precipitous end to the bilingual program. Some minority leaders, while conceding that problems exist with the bilingual program, fear the attack on bilingual education will further inflame anti- immigrant attitudes.

Stanley Diamond, chairman of California English Campaign, the organization behind the initiative, said recently that “in many respects bilingual education is a scam with children as pawns.” He described it as an institutionalized make-work program for teachers, aides, administrators, and a big publishing industry.

Diamond and his supporters will focus on two issues: the correct way to teach English and local control.

The most widely used approach for teaching English is known as the transitional method. This involves instructing children in both their native language and English. Supporters of this method maintain that children pick up interpersonal language skills very quickly. Academic skills involving comprehension and analysis develop more slowly.

According to a San Diego teacher, teaching students in their native language helps them learn English. But Diamond and his backers say the transitional method is “nonsense” and “illogical.” They prefer the English as a Second Language method, which calls for students to be taught in English only.

Diamond and his colleagues also are calling for greater local control, contending that school districts should have the right to choose the method they use. Efforts to reform bilingual education were stalemated last year when Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a bill that called for more limited reforms of the current program. This year the legislature is under the gun because the state mandate to provide bilingual education runs out next June. (The state remains under a federal court order to provide bilingual education.)

Meanwhile, critics and supporters of the bilingual program have temporarily found common ground in an effort to provide more funding for English classes for adult immigrants. Backers of bilingual education as it is are eager to demonstrate that the intent of the program is to teach English. Critics want to further their effort to establish the ascendancy of English among immigrants.

Advocates of English as an official language see themselves at the beginning of a long crusade in the name of our native language. In many ways, it is a phony issue. It is nearly impossible, for example, to find an immigrant who does not want to learn English. The real issue is not symbolic obeisance to the dominant culture, but how to assist immigrants to learn the kind of English language skills that will make them contributing members of an increasingly international community.

Peter Wiley, who lives in California, writes a column about the West.

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