Educators caught off guard by bilingual decision

Sonoma County educators expressed surprise and uncertainty Friday over the state Board of Education’s decision to stop requiring schools to teach students with limited English skills in their native language.

The immediate impact on school programs probably will be negligible, administrators said. But some feared the board’s action would aid the backers of a controversial June initiative that essentially would do away with bilingual education in California.

“I think it’s an attempt to strengthen the foundation for the Unz initiative,” said Petaluma Assistant Superintendent Steve Collins. He was referring to Proposition 227, which would require English language learners to be placed in “English Immersion classes” — normally for a year before joining regular classes.

The state board on Thursday voted 10-0 to rescind the decade-long policy that required local school districts to seek a waiver in order to operate English-only programs. Board members said they did so based on their interpretation of a recent court decision.

Local administrators said the significance of the board’s action will depend on whether the state Department of Education changes its rules, too. Doug Stone, a department spokesman, said state school Superintendent Delaine Eastin disagreed with the board’s decision.

Stone said it was too early to know how the department will respond. School district administrators may learn more next month when the state board again takes up the matter.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who co-authored Proposition 227, said the board’s action appears hopeful, but will change little because so many bilingual administrators are committed to maintaining the current programs.

“The ruling seems to move California in the right direction, but its impact right now is essentially negligible,” Unz said.

The board’s action nonetheless surprised and disappointed some administrators.

“I feel saddened by yesterday’s state Board of Education action and I question the appropriateness and legality of its decision,” said Guillermo Rivas, a school psychologist and director of bilingual services for the Sonoma County Office of Education.

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