A change in state policy that, if adopted, would allow local school districts to teach some students in English rather than their native language has outraged advocates of bilingual education, prompting them to organize a protest at the State Board of Education meeting today.

The state board is considering dropping the state’s policy requiring districts to teach students subjects such as history or math in what is known as their primary language. The state’s bilingual education law expired seven years ago but rules are still being enforced mandating instruction in students’ first language “when necessary” for them to keep up with their peers in other subjects.

One change to be discussed by a state board committee today would allow California’s local school districts to abide by the looser federal mandates for teaching bilingual students. Those rules allow districts to choose from several teaching methods as long as it can be proved that children who are not fluent in English are continuing to learn.

The discussion is being interpreted by the California Assn. for Bilingual Education and many other bilingual education proponents as a preemptive strike against Spanish and other languages inspired by the anti-immigrant sentiment of Proposition 187.

Dropping the primary language requirement would be “a real step back,” said Silvino Rubinstein, an administrator with the Montebello school district and director of legislative affairs for the bilingual education association.

She said researchers have found that effective bilingual education programs use a variety of methods, such as English as a second language and English language immersion, as well as instruction in the student’s first language.

“When one of those components is no longer a requirement, there’s no guarantee that we will have a clear direction of what a good bilingual program is,” Rubinstein said.

Dozens of bilingual advocates and parents from Los Angeles, Pasadena, Montebello and other school districts around the state plan to travel to Sacramento to protest any changes in the state’s policy before the school board committee.

But board President Marion McDowell of San Carlos said that Thursday’s meeting is to hear from the public, not take action. In a letter to legislators concerned about the issue, she wrote that “we will likely consider a range of options before we take action, if we take action at all.”

More than a fifth of California students grow up in homes where English is not the main spoken language. The first language of more than 400,000 Los Angeles County students is Spanish and 100,000 or so speak one of 43 other languages.

The primary language approach required by the state means that school districts have to try to find teachers who are fluent in every language from Arabic to Vietnamese. Well over $300 million in state and federal funds will be spent this year on bilingual education in California.

Jessie J. Franco, who oversees the bilingual program for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the district operates under a master plan that would be unaffected even if the state board changed its policy.

But she said such a policy change could reopen a discussion of the district’s approach. “Some in the community who don’t understand will call board members and say (primary language instruction) is optional, so why do you have to have it in Los Angeles,” Franco said.

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