SACRAMENTO — With an eye toward an initiative on the June ballot, the Assembly yesterday approved a long-stalled bill that would authorize local school districts to decide whether or not to use bilingual education.
Supporters said the bill is an attempt to find the “middle ground” in the heated debate over whether the 1.4 million California children who speak limited English should be taught in their native language or learn English quickly.
The author of the bill, Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, said that the sponsor of an initiative that would eliminate most bilingual education programs, Ron Unz, complained that the Legislature has not acted.
“It’s taken us awhile, but now we have something,” said Alpert. “If the governor signs this into law, I think we will have something to point to for reasons for not supporting the Unz initiative.”
Proposition 227, which has a commanding lead in statewide polls, would eliminate most of the bilingual education programs that teach children in their native language for up to seven years. The initiative would impose sheltered English immersion programs lasting about a year.
Unz said the Assembly action, coming six weeks before the election, reverses previous opposition to the Alpert bill in the lower house and is a “transparent attempt” to weaken support for the initiative. “It’s exactly the kind of parliamentary games that gives the Legislature a bad reputation with the public,” said Unz.
The bill was approved on a 50-27 vote with support from eight Republicans and all but two Democrats. All San Diego-area Democrats supported the bill, while Republican members of the local delegation voted against it.
The bill goes back to the Senate for approval of minor amendments made in the Assembly. Gov. Pete Wilson has not yet taken a position on Proposition 227 or Alpert’s bill.
A court ruled earlier this year that the state bilingual education law expired in 1987, prompting the state Board of Education to adopt tentative guidelines allowing local districts to make their own decisions about bilingual education.
Alpert said legislation is needed to put the new policy into law. Her bill also requires annual testing to make sure that English learners are making progress.
For three years, Alpert and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Santa Barbara, tried to work out a reform of the troubled bilingual education program, repeatedly running into roadblocks from bilingual educators and Latino educators.
Opponents say bilingual education is a failure because only 5 to 10 percent of the students transfer to mainstream English classes each year. They also say that bilingual education contributes to a high dropout rate among Latino students.
But bilingual education advocates, who acknowledge that some programs are poorly run, say that teaching children in their native language keeps them from falling behind and can improve academic achievement.
Alpert’s bill cleared the Senate on a strong bipartisan vote last year and was also approved by the Assembly Education Committee. But then Latino Assembly leaders bottled up the bill in the Assembly Appropriations Committee until earlier this month.
In the floor debate yesterday, Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith, R-Poway, said that Democrats blocked an attempt by Republicans to pull the bill out of committee last Sept. 9, which might have forestalled the initiative.
But Unz said yesterday that he began gathering signatures for his initiative in early July of last year, eventually turning in about 800,000, and would not have been stopped by passage of Alpert’s bill.
Unz said Alpert’s bill would only “ratify the status quo” because the school boards of most large school districts are firmly committed to bilingual education.
The lone Republican Latino legislator, Rod Pacheco of Riverside, accused Democrats of backing the Alpert bill because they want to be able to say they voted for reform if bilingual education becomes an issue in elections.
“Vote your emotions and your philosophy,” Pacheco said. “Don’t do it because you are afraid you won’t get re-elected in November.”