Calling it educationally unsound and politically motivated, leaders of major statewide Latino and education groups Friday denounced Gov. George Deukmejian’s veto this week of a bill that would have extended California’s bilingual education law until 1992.

The critics, assembled at a Los Angeles press conference, said the governor’s action will harm not only the 500,000 students in the state who are not fluent in English but American Indian schoolchildren, youngsters with reading problems and poor children who do not perform well academically.

“The governor is telling us to go back to the days of sink-or-swim,” said Los Angeles school board member Larry Gonzalez. “When the governor says that is his philosophy . . . we have a sad state of affairs.”

The measure had set out in precise detail the way students lacking fluency in English should be taught, from defining the size and composition of the classroom to providing for adequate notification of parents whose children could be placed in a bilingual program.

Reading Deficiencies

It also extended special programs serving Indian students, children with reading deficiencies, low-income youngsters who score low on basic skill tests and schools running innovative programs, such as classes for the mentally gifted.

In his veto message, the governor said it was “premature” to extend any of the programs until the Department of Finance can conduct a study to determine their cost effectiveness. He suggested that if the study proved the programs were cost effective, they could be extended before their June 30, 1987, expiration date. He did not mention the issue of bilingual education in the message.

Approximately $100 million in state funds are spent on bilingual programs each year, a state Department of Education official said, and an additional $20 million is provided by the federal government. The vetoed measure would not have increased the state’s expenditure.

Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education, said numerous studies, including one by a review committee with six Deukmejian appointees, have shown that bilingual education programs are efficiently run and provide the most effective method of helping limited-English students learn the language and succeed academically.

Called Smoke Screen

“Cost effectiveness is really a smoke screen,” Spiegel-Coleman said, for the “purely political reasons” behind the governor’s opposition.

Gina Alonso of the Mexican American Political Assn. contended that the veto was partly in response to the Latino community’s vocal opposition to the governor’s plan to build a new state prison near Latino neighborhoods on Los Angeles’ Eastside.

Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-Redlands), a member of the Assembly Education Committee and a leading opponent of the bilingual extension bill, said the issue was not cost effectiveness as much as “the proper use of the money.”

“I think what the governor meant was that the money should be used to mainstream these children into English as quickly as possible, instead of going into programs that keep them separate,” he said. “The question is whether the money is being properly spent. I think that is the governor’s concern.”

Drastic Changes

Extending the law next year would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, instead of a simple majority, which bilingual proponents say will give Republican lawmakers the power to make drastic changes.

Leonard noted that even if supporters of the extension measure are unable to win approval in the next legislative session, the state will continue to provide funding of bilingual education because it is bound by a federal mandate. A 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a San Francisco case said non-English-speaking students must receive equal educational opportunities, including instruction in their primary language, if necessary.

But if the state program is not extended, the current regulations defining the size, composition and variety of bilingual classrooms would be erased, giving local districts the ability to shape their own programs. That, Leonard suggested, would please most Republican opponents.

Immersion Approach

Supporters of the bilingual bill oppose giving districts that freedom because they fear some may opt to take the English-immersion approach, in which students receive most of their instruction in English.

Although the merits of the bilingual and immersion approaches have been extensively debated, bilingual supporters cite the preliminary findings of a recent U.S. Education Department study showing that immersion students learned English more slowly than those in bilingual programs.

The extension bill required bilingual classrooms to have at least one-third English-speaking students, a provision designed to avoid segregation of non-English speakers. It also called for a bilingual classroom whenever a school had at least 10 students of one language group in the same grade.

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