California Signals Retreat On Bilingual Education

Nation's Largest Program Under Siege

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 14, 1987—California, which led a national movement to provide bilingual education for a flood of new immigrants, now appears close to drastically reducing its program and leading the rest of the country in the same direction.

The confluence of factors that first produced bilingual classes in this state — a surge of immigrant children and rising concern about preserving their cultural heritage — has stimulated a reaction in the form of Proposition 63, an initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters in November that makes English the official state language.

Linked with other complaints about bilingual classes and a June 30 expiration date in the state’s 10-year-old bilingual law, the new mood in California has led legislators and educators to predict that the nation’s largest bilingual program will have to undergo substantial changes to survive. More than 500,000 California schoolchildren are affected by the program, as well as hundreds of thousands in other states that often follow California’s example.

Susan Jetton, press secretary to Willie Brown, speaker of the California Assembly, said the pro-bilingual Democratic leadership is “not overly optimistic” it can win an extension of the bilingual law in the face of budget restraints and Republican Gov. George Deukmejian’s apparent opposition.

The prospect of a major revision in bilingual education here has cheered the well-organized supporters of renewed emphasis on English-language instruction. USENGLISH, a 260,000-member national group that supported Proposition 63, reports that at least 20 legislatures are beginning to consider laws mandating English as their state’s official language.

“California is a bellwether,” said Gerda Bikales, executive director of USENGLISH. “What happens in California happens everywhere.”

Among changes expected to be proposed in new legislation in Sacramento are a requirement of written parental permission for bilingual class participation, an end to bilingual kindergarten classes, an end to rules requiring some teachers to learn Spanish or risk transfer, and new authority for local districts to handle immigrant children in their own way.

Bilingual education programs offer immigrant children as much as three or four years of classes taught in their own language to ease the transition to an English-speaking school system. Although the preponderance of such classes in California are in Spanish, other languages are offered.

Several studies show that Latino children perform better in all-English classes after going through a bilingual program, although some studies suggest the opposite. The debate, however, has often strayed from the research and into the belief of some educators that schools should help preserve students’ cultural and linguistic heritages, and the belief of critics that the old system — immediate immersion in all-English classes — worked better.

When Proposition 63 passed (with 74 percent of the vote), making English the state’s official language and prohibiting any official effort to “diminish” its use, antibilingual forces received a significant boost. Bilingual classes and bilingual ballots had been a growing irritant to many state residents. Even many Californians of Hispanic descent, often resentful of job competition from new immigrants and proud of their own rapid assimilation into American life, supported the proposition.

Bilingual school systems have also drawn fire from teachers’ organizations, especially the requirement that any teacher in a class with more than 10 Spanish-speaking children must speak Spanish or sign a waiver promising to take after-school classes in Spanish language and culture.

Rosemary Wilson, a Los Angeles teacher with 39 years’ experience, was forced this month to leave her fifth- and sixth-grade class at Roscoe Elementary School to work as a teachers’ aide and substitute at a school that does not have as many immigrant children as Roscoe. She said she refused to promise to take Spanish lessons because she did not feel it worth her time since she is near retirement and because she believed she was communicating easily with her students, with help from a Spanish-speaking aide.

“I feel what we are getting is reverse bigotry,” she said, explaining the grievance she has filed against the school administration. “They are replacing a very experienced teacher with a much less experienced one, just because the replacement is willing to sign the waiver.”

Stanley Diamond, head of the California English Campaign, which sponsored Proposition 63, argues that the bilingual system has created its own constituency of teachers and administrators who see his group as a threat. The state appropriates about $ 500 million a year for bilingual classes. “There are very heavy dollars involved,” Diamond said.

Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, a Los Angeles school consultant and president of the California Association for Bilingual Education, rejects that charge and points to studies that show Latino children doing better in school after a bilingual beginning. She predicts Democratic legislators will be able to pass an extension of the law and persuade Deukmejian to sign it, for no other reason than that it includes other programs that are politically popular.

The chief legislative opponent of the current bilingual system is Assemblyman Frank Hill (R) of Whittier. “Prospects look excellent” for a change, he said, noting the pressure of the June expiration date and Deukmejian’s threatened veto.

If the program expires, some officials say the state school superintendent, Bill Honig, will have the power to set up rules for districts spending federal bilingual money. “I would want to make it more flexible,” he said. “More flexible on the waivers, more flexibility for districts who want to approach this in different ways.”

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