Bill To Revamp Rules Of Bilingual Education Passes

Assembly: Panel OKs measure that would eliminate requirement that most children whose first language is not English be schooled in their own tongue.

The latest attempt to free local school districts from the state’s bilingual education requirements passed a key hurdle Wednesday.

On a 12-3 vote, the Assembly Education Committee endorsed a bill by Sen. Deirdre Alpert (D-Coronado) and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) that would eliminate the requirement that most children whose first language is not English be schooled in their own tongue.

Instead, schools would be given wide latitude to fashion their own approaches, which could range from teaching students in their native language to immersing them in classrooms dominated by English.

As part of the bill, school districts would be required–for the first time–to measure the educational progress of the 1.3 million California students who are not fluent in English.

“We’ve spent almost no time trying to see if children are progressing,” Alpert said. “Our job should be to hold school districts accountable.”

The bill, which has passed the Senate in a slightly different form, now must survive the Assembly Appropriations Committee and a floor vote. It is the seventh attempt in 10 years to revamp the state’s bilingual education regulations. It reflects continuing frustration with the ineffectiveness of the present system–a frustration shared by both English-only advocates and those who insist on native language instruction.

But the middle road taken by Alpert and Firestone–giving districts a freer hand to be innovative while holding them to account for producing results–has failed to satisfy either camp. Last year, a nearly identical bill failed by two votes in a committee.

This year’s bill has similarly drawn opposition from conservatives and liberals, leading the two authors to be cautious in their assessment of its chances.

The state’s bilingual education program has been in a legal limbo since 1987, when the previous law expired. Since then, the state Department of Education has required school districts to operate under rules that emphasize instruction in children’s native languages.

Some research shows that that approach, which can last as long as seven years before students are moved into all-English classes, prepares students better academically. But other studies have found that many of those students never become fully fluent in English.

Nearly 1-in-5 California students qualify for bilingual education–77% of them in Spanish. But the state has never had a mechanism for tracking their progress.

The state also faces a dearth of bilingual teachers, despite sustained recruitment efforts. That shortage grew by about 5,000 this past year and now stands at about 26,000 teachers.

Efforts to remedy such long-standing problems have been put in a political squeeze between those who see bilingual education as sustaining children culturally and those who favor all-English instruction.

Interest in overhauling the program has continued to build. This week, former gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz and English-instruction activist Gloria Matta Tuchman of Santa Ana unveiled a petition drive to put an initiative before voters that would require that all instruction be conducted in English unless a parent can prove his or her child would learn more quickly with a different approach.

The Alpert-Firestone bill takes a more moderate approach and, by doing so, has gained the support of such powerful education groups as the California School Boards Assn., the California Teachers Assn. and the Assn. of California School Administrators.

During more than three hours of debate Wednesday, advocates of teaching in children’s native languages said the bill improperly shifts the emphasis away from that approach. They argue that students are hampered educationally if they are required to learn core subjects such as math, history and science in a language in which they are not fluent.

Foes of the bill said many districts will simply stop teaching children in their native language.

“Districts will choose the path of least resistance,” said Martha Jimenez, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

She and other opponents also criticized the bill for a lack of accountability, particularly during the first two years. While a review of programs’ effectiveness would be conducted in 2000, thousands of children could be set back in the meantime, they said.

English-only advocates also said they opposed the bill.

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