In an apparent effort to disarm support for a state ballot initiative, the Legislature sent a bill to Governor Pete Wilson yesterday that would let school districts decide for themselves how best to teach children who speak little English.
Wilson, saying the bill may be too little, too late, said he has not decided whether to sign it into law.
“I will judge it on its merits, but it is very, very late,” Wilson said of the legislation introduced 18 months ago by Democratic Senator Dede Alpert of Coronado. “It reminds me of the belated efforts made by the Legislature in 1978 to try to forestall passage of Proposition 13.”
Wilson said the state Senate, which approved the bill by 21 to 13, is trying to forestall passage of Proposition 227, the wildly popular ballot proposal to end bilingual education.
The governor has not taken a stand on Proposition 227. But whether he signs yesterday’s legislation or not, Proposition 227 would supersede the new law. With a month to go before the election, a new Field poll to be released today shows the measure has what may be record-breaking support, at 71 percent.
Proposition 227 would make it illegal to teach children in any language but English, and would let parents sue teachers who failed to comply. Children would be held out of academic classes for one year while they studied English.
By contrast, the Alpert bill approved yesterday would let school districts choose from several teaching methods and would require that the program be changed if children failed to learn English within two years. The bill resembles a decision by the Wilson-appointed state Board of Education in March to let districts decide for themselves how to teach immigrant children.
The sudden passage of the Alpert bill that had been stalled in the Legislature for months is an apparent effort to counter the English-only message of Proposition 227 with another simple, appealing message: local control.
Although there is little evidence that California’s 1.3 million immigrant children are not learning English under the current array of bilingual education programs, software entrepreneur Ron Unz, the sponsor of Proposition 227, touched voters in a way that bilingual proponents’ muddled efforts to defend the status quo have not.
Unz seemed gleeful yesterday as he contemplated his role in forcing state lawmakers to try to reform bilingual education — a system perceived as dysfunctional largely because children take so long to graduate into the mainstream program.
“The notion of the state Legislature passing a bill dealing with bilingual education when the election is less than a month away — when they did nothing for 11 straight years — explains why people don’t have a tremendous amount of confidence in state government,” Unz said.
He noted that his initiative appears to have more support than any in state history, including Proposition 13, which passed with 65 percent of the voters’ support.
Proponents of the Alpert bill, including the California Teachers Association and state Superintendent Delaine Eastin, say they have not lost hope that voters will do an overwhelming about-face and oppose what they call a “one-size-fits- all” approach.
“In my legislation, there is accountability,” Alpert said. “School districts have to change their program if it isn’t succeeding. We don’t dictate one methodology over another.”