Divided Assembly approves bilingual education bill

In a move to head off a ballot initiative that would largely eliminate bilingual education in California, the Assembly on Monday passed a bill that would give school districts flexibility to choose their own approach to teaching non-English-speaking children.

Assembly Democrats — who last year blocked a vote on the bill — described it Monday as an “imperfect” solution to problems in bilingual education, but preferable to Proposition 227, the ballot measure promoted by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz.

“It is not a perfect solution,” Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles, said of SB 6. “I say to you, neither is the Unz initiative, neither is the status quo.”

The bill, which passed the Senate last year, cleared the Assembly 50-27. It now goes back to the Senate, where it is expected to pass again.

Gov. Pete Wilson has not taken a position on the bill, authored by Sen. Deirdre Alpert, D-Coronado. Nor has the governor taken a formal stance on Proposition 227, which would virtually eliminate native-language instruction for the state’s 1.4 million children who are not fluent in English.

The Alpert bill would give districts the ability to decide what type of bilingual education to offer, provided that it is based on sound theory. The measure would require districts to assess the progress of bilingual education students toward learning English, while keeping track of their academic progress in other subjects. Districts in which students did not make progress would have to redesign their approach.

Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Wilson, pointed out Monday that Democrats who control the Legislature had a chance last year to act on bilingual education reform, but failed to do so. SB 6 was held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee last year, and Republican attempts to withdraw the bill from committee and bring it to a floor vote were rejected by Democrats.

“Due to legislative default, the people were forced to go the initiative route,” Walsh said.

Democrats who last year opposed bringing the bill to the full Assembly said Monday it’s the best solution the Legislature can agree on this year.

“Many of you members took umbrage that the Latino caucus stopped this bill . . . last year, and you know what, we did. And I’m glad that we did . . . because SB 6 was not ready,” said Assemblywoman Martha Escutia, D-Huntington Park.

She and other Democrats said the bill has been improved since last year with amendments that hold school districts more accountable for teaching students English quickly.

The amendments set a goal of three years for bilingual students to be mainstreamed into regular classrooms. If a student hasn’t made significant progress in that time, the school is required to meet with parents and discuss alternatives.

Many conservative Republicans last year supported the bill, but only a handful voted for it Monday. Most Assembly Republicans who spoke Monday said they favored Proposition 227, which would establish a statewide system of English-immersion instruction for limited-English speakers, and limit it to one year.

“This is an attempt to derail the Unz initiative,” said Assemblyman Tom McClintock, R-Simi Valley.

Even faced with the likely approval of Proposition 227 in June, one Democrat said she was still refusing to vote for the bill. Assemblywoman Diane Martinez, D-Rosemead, cited a study showing non-English-speaking children do better if taught core subjects in their own language.

“The heart of this bill is, pure and simple, unadulterated racism,” Martinez said. “It will result in a class of children who are ignorant.”

The approach of teaching non-English-speaking children in their own language, called “primary language instruction,” had been long-standing policy in California.

But the law mandating such instruction expired more than 10 years ago, and the primary-language policy had continued despite the lack of a statute. Earlier this month, in response to a court decision, the state Board of Education adopted a policy of allowing school districts to choose which approach to take.

Supporters of SB 6 argued Monday that the Legislature has the duty to establish a law governing bilingual education.

Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos, who has worked for several years with Alpert on the bilingual issue, cited poor academic performance and high dropout rates for non-English-speaking students.

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