Key Lawmakers work to revive bilingual bill

Toil in shadow of proposed Unz initiative

In the shadow of a proposed ballot initiative that would largely eliminate bilingual education, key state lawmakers confirmed this week that they are working to revive stalled legislation that would make substantial – but less radical – changes to the system for teaching California’s English-learning students.

State Sen. Deirdre Alpert, D-Coronado, author of a stalled bilingual bill and opponent of the ballot plan, is among those who say the Legislature should still act regardless of the proposed initiative.

“We should have a proper bilingual policy in place in this state, although I am not sure it will stop the initiative,” she said. “Politically, it may be too late. But policy-wise, I think it is the correct thing to do.”

Alpert said that even if voters approve the proposed initiative, it could be challenged in the courts. “We would at least have a decent policy in place in this state while these battles are being fought,” she said.

However, it is far from certain that the full Legislature will now agree to a compromise plan or that even its quick passage would sway voters away from passing the ballot measure and overruling lawmakers, she and other legislators said.

Much of state law governing bilingual education expired a decade ago, and the Legislature has struggled for years to write new rules. Earlier this year, Alpert’s bill, SB 6, cleared the Senate on a bipartisan vote but stalled in the Democratic-controlled Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Alpert and other supporters say the bill would give school districts the freedom to design their own programs for the state’s 1.3 million children with limited English skills, while at the same time holding districts accountable for students’ success.

The measure, however, faced strong resistance from Latino legislators, bilingual educators and others. They worried it would have made it too easy for school districts to abandon traditional, first-language bilingual instruction programs that they believe are essential for many English-learning children.

Many Assembly Democrats opposed the bill even as Alpert warned of the proposed initiative, which is being promoted by wealthy software developer Ron Unz.

The Unz plan, which is now widely expected to qualify for the June statewide primary ballot, would generally end bilingual education in California’s public schools as it is now practiced, putting in its place a program of “sheltered English immersion … not normally intended to exceed one year.”

But Alpert and a group of other legislators are discussing potential new amendments to her bill—or possibly a different bill—that, if agreed upon, could give bilingual education reform another chance to clear the Assembly before voters go to the polls. The Legislature returns to session in January.

Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante, D-Fresno, “is working closely with Alpert and others to forge a consensus approach to this issue. He plans to advance the legislation in January, said Bustamante spokesman Ron Gray.

Assemblywoman Martha Escutia, D-Huntington Park, said she took part in talks earlier this week with, among others, Alpert, state Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, and Assemblyman Mike Honda, D-San Jose.

But she stressed that further discussions will be needed. Escutia, who also opposes the proposed Unz initiative, said that measure was not the motivation for her joining the talks.

“The idea of trying to amend bilingual education without fully destroying it is something some of us have been thinking about for years,” she said.

Escutia said she doesn’t believe Assembly Democrats made a mistake last year by letting the Alpert bill stall, arguing that the measure could be dramatically improved with amendments. She said some of the potential amendments are intended to hold school districts more accountable for how students are treated under each district’s program.

But Alpert conceded some lawmakers who supported her measure earlier this year may now support the Unz initiative instead.

Assembly Republican leader Bill Leonard of Upland said he thinks the opportunity for success on Alpert’s bill has passed.

“I told the speaker in September that ‘I think you made a grievous error in not allowing it to be brought up for a vote. . . . You’ve taken away any incentive people have to negotiate on SB 6,’ ” Leonard said, adding he doesn’t think new legislative action on the bill would affect voters’ views of the Unz proposal.

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