SACRAMENTO—The opening shots are being fired in what figures to be a long battle over the future of bilingual education in California public schools.

Assembly Democrats propose to extend until 1992 the state’s bilingual education law, which sets out in extensive detail how school districts should teach non-English-speaking students. Speaker Willie Brown’s bill should pass the Assembly easily, but not before critics — mostly Republican — air at length their grievances with the bilingual education law: that it’s too expensive, that it allows local school districts too little flexibility, and that it fails to adequately teach English to students who speak other languages at home.

Package Up for Debate

And the fate of the program, which would expire next year unless it is extended, remains in doubt regardless of what the Democratic-controlled Legislature does. A veto by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who has not publicly taken a stance on the bill, is a strong possibility, some of the bill’s backers say.

The bill is part of a large package of education legislation expected to come up for debate in the Assembly in the next few days. The legislation also would extend the life of four other major school programs in the state, but it is only the bilingual education measure that is drawing fire.

The bilingual education law essentially requires school districts to provide instruction to students in a language they can understand. Particularly in the lower grades, this means that much instruction in all subjects is given in languages other than English. Such teaching has been required in one form or another since a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a San Francisco suit.

That decision led to the passage in 1976 of a law in California that set regulations for bilingual teaching. In the absence of such a law, school districts would be bound only by the far more general Supreme Court order, which contained guidelines but no specific rules on how non-English-speaking students should be taught.

Critics, including the Assembly Republican Caucus, charge that the California bilingual education law is too comprehensive, and leaves no latitude for school districts. Some even contend that bilingual education is a failure altogether. They say that Latinos, who are the largest language minority group in the state and account for nearly three-quarters of the state’s bilingual programs, have disproportionately high dropout rates.

The critics also point to the academic success of Vietnamese and other Asian students in California who have been taught without bilingual teachers, since such teachers simply have not been available.

Advocates of bilingual education, including Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego), who authored the original California law, respond that two-language teaching has been very effective when it is properly embraced.

“It works in those districts that have supported it,” he said, adding that for an effective bilingual program, four conditions must be present in a school:

* The principal must support the program.

* There must be enough qualified bilingual teachers.

* There must be community support.

* The necessary instructional materials must be available.

A major problem for bilingual education, he said, is the shortage of teachers skilled in two languages.

“I blame California’s colleges and universities in this,” Chacon said. “They have not trained the teachers we need.”

Speaker Brown, author of the extension bill, also strongly defends the law.

“Clearly the bilingual program has its problems, because there aren’t a whole lot of people trained (in two languages),” he said, “but the benefits are just staggering.”

While supporters and critics often use superlatives to describe how “successful” or “ineffectual” they believe bilingual education to be, there actually has not been a definitive study to show who is right.

No Solid Data

“There isn’t any solid data,” acknowledged state school Supt. Bill Honig. While he generally supports a continuation of the bilingual education law, Honig said he will push “for more accountability” on the part of school districts.

Among the issues in dispute is whether teachers who have functioned under waivers as bilingual educators for several years can now be “grandfathered in” and allowed permanent status, even if their language skills are not up to the state standard. This would mean the teachers could stop taking the language instruction — in Spanish, in most cases — that their waivers now require of them.

Chacon and other supporters of bilingual education contend that the waiver system is a major reason that bilingual education hasn’t done as well as it could. But he also acknowledges that there is a shortage of bilingual teachers, and that their dismissal would do nothing to remedy the problem. In its current form, the Brown bill does not propose permanent status for the waivered teachers.

The Brown bill essentially incorporates the recommendations of a bipartisan committee that last year studied bilingual education. Six members of the committee were appointed by Deukmejian, a Republican; three by Brown, and three by Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Los Angeles, who, like Brown, is a Democrat.

But Republican lawmakers said they are unconvinced that the committee was truly objective.

‘Give It More Money’

“The committee mainly said just tinker a little with the (bilingual education) law and give it more money,” said Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-Redlands), a member of the Assembly Education Committee .

Added Assemblyman Charles Bader (R-Pomona), “There is a tremendous vested interest among many educators to keep the (bilingual) program. . . . We’re concerned because we don’t think students with limited English are being helped. Those students just aren’t learning English, and they aren’t learning other academic subjects.”

The Brown bill passed out of the Assembly Education Committee without a single Republican vote. Bader predicted similar Republican solidarity when it comes up in the full Assembly, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 47 to 33.

“It only takes 41 votes for it to pass, so Willie Brown will make it,” Bader predicted. “The question then, if it passes the Senate, is whether Gov. Deukmejian will veto it. He’s said before that he’ll veto a bilingual education bill unless it has many reforms, and this bill doesn’t have those reforms.”

Deukmejian, who seldom comments on a bill before final passage, has not taken a stand on the Brown measure, said William Cunningham, the governor’s education adviser.

While Cunningham said he could not discuss the Brown bill itself, he said, “I can’t imagine there not being some form of bilingual education.”

If the governor does veto the bill, the next session of the Legislature, in 1987, would have to try to pass an “urgency” bill to beat the June, 1987, expiration date of the current law. An urgency bill requires a two-thirds vote, or 54 Assembly members, for passage.

“That would give the Republicans more power over putting what they want in the bill,” Chacon said. “I think that’s what they want.”

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