LOS ANGELES, Dec. 8—No sooner had the voters here overwhelmingly made English the official language of California than the campaign’s sponsors began preparing legislation to put an end to bilingual education in the state. The legislation is part of what will be a major political battle over the survival of bilingual education in California.
By coincidence, current bilingual education programs, which reach roughly 600,000 California public school children, expire in 1987. Governor George Deukmejian has already vetoed a Democratic-sponsored bill that would have extended the programs for another five years.
Legislators and some educators here are examining bilingual education, in part because it is expensive and in part because demographers predict increasing numbers of immigrant children will come to the United States from Mexico or from Asia. Many settle in Los Angeles, where many of the state’s bilingual education pupils are enrolled.
California is the first state where English-only advocates can test whether a victory at the polls leads to legislative changes.
Bilingual education is one of the most controversial programs in American education and it triggers intense political passions, in part because it was connnected to the civil rights and anti-poverty movements of the 1960’s.
The topic is touchy because thousands of jobs and several billion dollars in Federal and state funds are at stake. At the center of the controversy is a struggle that has divided educators, parents and teachers. It has also raised fundamental social questions and social issues.
According to Dr. Joseph Beard, the administrator of the National Association for Bilingual Education, 41 states operate bilingual programs financed by the Federal Government. Many other programs are financed by by states or municipalities.
Carol Whitten, director of the Office of Bilingual and Minority Language Affairs for the U.S. Department of Education, said that as of 1984, the last year for which figures are available, there were roughly 1,198,000 children enrolled in some form of bilingual education programs in primary and secondary public schools throughout the nation.
Critics of bilingual education assert that in the 18 years since it first came under Federal and state financing, bilingual education has spawned an educational bureaucracy of its own employing administrators, teachers, researchers and others.
Supporters say bilingual education is essential to children who arrive here without speaking any English. They say they learn best if allowed to progress academically in the language they know best while learning to speak English.
Allowing schools to choose other alternatives, say supporters, would enable the Federal Government to cut its responsibility for bilingual education.
Supporters also point to court mandates, many of which came after the Supreme Court in 1974 prohibited school districts from simply letting non-English-speaking children ”sink or swim” in classes conducted only in English.
The court mandate, they said, does not prohibit other ways of teaching English.
Since 1974, when the Bilingual Education Act was expanded to offer instruction in students’ native tongues, rather than to make use of English as a Second Language or other methods in which English is the primary language of instruction, a debate has developed as to whether bilingual instruction works.
About $2 billion has been spent on bilingual education which essentially encourages instruction in a student’s native tongue. Critics say this approach takes too long; sometimes it will take a child four or five years to learn English.
Transitional bilingual education, the most common method, employs bilingual teachers who begin with instruction in the native language and eventually wean students onto English.
Assemblyman Frank Hill, a Republican from Whittier and a leader of the English-only campaign, wants an end to this method, now used in most California school districts.
”We’re going to get away from teaching in the native language,” Mr. Hill said. ”We are going to teach ’em in English.”
Mr. Hill wants local school districts to have more flexibility in teaching children how to speak English. He is not alone in trying to get changes made at the local level. Last year Education Secretary William J. Bennett advocated the same policy – a major change in previous Federal thinking.
Mr. Bennett observed that despite spending on bilingual education ”we have no evidence that the children whom we sought to help – that the children who deserve our help – have benefited.”
Mr. Bennett added that since bilingual education began it has become ”confused as to purpose and overbearing as to means.”