Assembly panel OKs bilingual standards

Measure seen as Democrats' bid to deter Prop. 227

A key Assembly panel on Wednesday approved a bill creating minimum standards for bilingual education in California in a move by Democrats to head off a June ballot measure that would largely eliminate the current system.

The measure, SB 6, would give local districts the power to fashion their own bilingual education programs, with the state serving as a monitor of districts’ performance.

“We leave this up to the local control of school boards, of communities, of parents,” said the bill’s author, state Sen. Deirdre Alpert, D-Coronado.

The measure passed by an 11-5 vote in the 21-member Assembly Appropriations Committee, where it had been stuck since last summer after winning passage in the Senate. It now moves to the Assembly floor. Gov. Pete Wilson has not yet taken a position on the bill.

Alpert and her supporters portrayed the proposal as an alternative to Proposition 227 on the June ballot, the initiative to end the current system of bilingual education.

Sponsored by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz, Proposition 227 would establish a statewide system of English-immersion instruction for limited English-speaking students, and limit it to one year.

Traditionally, the state has required bilingual education to be offered through the various grade levels, although that requirement was recently struck down by a Superior Court judge in Sacramento.

Following the court ruling, the state Board of Education rescinded its long-standing policy requiring bilingual education.

Assemblyman Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino, who voted for the Alpert bill, said the court decision put California in “limbo … kind of a black hole.”

Alpert said some Republicans told her that, in light of the Board of Education action, there was no need for her bill because local districts now had the authority to create their own programs.

But Alpert argued that absent her bill, districts could opt out of bilingual education altogether.

No Republicans voted for her measure Wednesday in committee, and Alpert acknowledged she would face an uphill battle when the bill comes to a floor vote in the Assembly.

“I have to find some ways to convince Republicans that we should actually take some proactive action on this,” she said.

Alpert found a powerful ally in Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles, who said her measure is a realistic alternative to the Unz initiative.

Villaraigosa, whose wife is a bilingual instructor, criticized the Unz measure as “a meat-ax approach to public policy.”

“We need to show the people of California that we’re willing to act, we’re willing to allow for more flexibility, that we’re willing to provide more accountability in bilingual education programs,” … Villaraigosa said.

But Assemblywoman Diane Martinez, D-Rosemead, the only Democrat to vote against the measure in committee Wednesday, said the Alpert bill was merely “an Unz look-alike.”

She criticized the bill for not requiring schools to offer instruction in students’ primary language, nor imposing strict qualifications for bilingual teachers.

“I think clearly we need to have some action, but this bill is not the kind of action we need,” Martinez said.

The California Teachers Association supports SB 6, while the California Association for Bilingual Education is among the groups opposing it.

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