Bilingual teaching setback

State shift: The board's vote leaves districts freer to teach only in English.

In yet another blow to bilingual education advocates, the state Board of Education on Thursday rescinded its policy on teaching non-English speaking students, saying school districts — not the state — should decide how those children are educated.

The unanimous vote followed hard on the heels of a court ruling last week that said the state has little, if any, authority to force districts to educate students in their native language.

The board’s action, which makes it easier for districts to teach only in English, left education officials stunned and dismayed.

“The board has acted precipitously,” said state schools chief Delaine Eastin, who has clashed repeatedly with the board. “They don’t just get to change the rules of the game. This is not in the best interest of the kids.”

The decision comes just three months before Californians will vote on Proposition 227, which would require that most public school instruction be in English.

There has been no legal requirement for schools to teach children in their native language since the state law authorizing bilingual education expired in 1987. But the board and the education department — through polices and administrative regulations — have continued to insist that school districts provide special help for students with limited English skills.

With its vote, the state board voided its bilingual education policy and all its related “program advisories.” Trustees said they would work with the state to develop a new policy by next month.

The board’s decision was a response to a Feb. 17 petition by the Pacific Legal Foundation to withdraw all written policies that led districts to believe instruction in their first language is required for “limited-English proficient” students.

The foundation argued that since the state’s bilingual education law expired in 1987, the board was acting beyond the scope of law when it required districts to obtain permission for English-only programs.

‘Wheels in motion’

“This puts the wheels in motion to set a new direction for . . . meeting the needs of English-language learners,” said Bill Lucia, the board’s executive director.

Board member Janet Nicholas made the motion to rescind the current policy, saying the board had little legal choice.

“It’s clear to me the provisions of the state bilingual education act are inoperative and the principles governing this state are federal law,” she said.

Federal law does not require bilingual education, but it does mandate that schools “overcome language barriers” that impede “equal participation” by students.

The Education Department and the Board of Education have been at odds over bilingual education for years.

Department officials have long advocated teaching non-English speaking students in their native language first and phasing in English-language instruction over a period of years.

That approach, formulated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is intended to help students comprehend their course work while they acquire a second language.

Through regulations and the withholding of state-controlled funds, state officials have strongly encouraged districts to use that method whenever feasible.

But the mostly conservative state board, appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson, has been skeptical of that approach. In 1995, the board tried to ease the state’s emphasis on primary language instruction by saying it would grant waivers to districts that wanted to use other approaches, such as immersion in English, as long as they could prove their educational validity.

Thursday’s action means districts no longer need to obtain a waiver from the board to use alternative instructional methods.

The board said it would prepare a new policy for approval next month “that is structured in a manner to permit school districts the flexibility authorized under federal law.”

State education officials said they were still evaluating the effect of the board’s action. But they said the department is still obligated to abide by other aspects of state law.

Other requirements

Among other things, the education code requires school districts to train teachers in the “bilingual and cross-cultural skills” necessary to serve students with limited English skills. The code also directs districts to provide an equal educational opportunity for all students, “including, when necessary, academic instruction using the primary language.”

Nothing in Thursday’s action indicated that school districts wanting to use primary language instruction will be prohibited from doing so.

“The districts that implemented programs that bring students to English literacy through primary language instruction will continue to do so,” said Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of California Association for Bilingual Education. “The districts that have not moved in that direction will stay where they are.”

Rubinstein criticized the board for “not taking leadership for schools that need to work with students whose first language is not English.”

Olga Sanchez, legislative staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said she is worried districts will misinterpret the board’s actions.

“I’m sure there are various school districts, particularly in Southern California, that will interpret this to say they don’t have to provide primary language — that they can do what they feel is in their interest,” Sanchez said. “But we believe there still has to be some accountability.”

Sanchez argued that districts cannot abandon primary language instruction because federal law requires that it be used when deemed necessary.

In making their decision, board members also relied on a ruling by a Sacramento judge, issued last week in a separate court case. In that case, Spanish-speaking parents sought to require the Orange Unified School District to continue primary language instruction for 1,400 first-, second- and third-graders.

Orange County battle

Parents and Latino bilingual education advocates argued that children were being denied equal education opportunities and that the state Board of Education was wrong to allow the Orange County district to conduct an English-only program.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald B. Robie ruled last Friday that the board was acting “contrary to law” in issuing any such waivers.

Robie said primary language instruction is required “when necessary” to meet the educational needs of a student. But he said the board had no authority to require districts to offer any specific type of program for students who speak little or no English

Sherri Annis, spokeswoman for Proposition 227 campaign, said she doubted the board’s action would have an affect on the ballot measure.

“The state board of education basically confirmed that a law that expired 11 years ago need not be continued,” she said. “I think it’s going to have very little practical affect in California. Those districts which have entrenched bilingual programs will choose to maintain those programs, so we believe the inaction will continue.”

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