WASHINGTON—The National Education Association chose Los Angeles, where Latino children are the majority in schools, to deplore Hispanic dropout rates that reach 50 percent or higher in some cities – ”a loss of half a generation or more.”

In releasing the NEA’s report on Hispanic educational issues at its recent annual convention, the chairman of the committee that studied the problems said ”significant numbers” of Hispanic children were being taught without the use of their native language.

Hispanic education concerns, however, ”go much beyond” bilingual education and ”span the full range of public schooling issues,” said Committee Chairman John Wilson, a middle school special education teacher in Raleigh, N.C.

But the focus on bilingual education is sure to intensify in the aftermath of a vote last week by a portion of the membership of United Teachers-Los Angeles.

By a wide margin, those UTLA members voting on a referendum approved a move toward language instruction mostly in English or English ”immersion” classes.

Last year, about 260,658 students in Los Angeles County were identified as ”limited English proficient.” According to statistics released Friday by the state, a total of 613,224 students in California overall are limited English speakers and 449,000 of those were identifed as Spanish speakers.

Wayne Johnson, president of UTLA, said in a telephone interview he thought the vote reflected teacher dissatisfaction with a school board policy requiring teachers, many of whom are veterans, to learn a foreign language or face a transfer under a ”waiver system.”

”I think that the strong vote for ‘English-only’ instruction was really more of a vote against the waiver system than bilingual education as a program,” Johnson said.

The UTLA has about 21,000 members but just less than 40 percent voted last week. Nonetheless, the vote quickly prompted speculation that bilingual education programs in other California school districts and elsewhere could come under scrutiny as teachers follow the Los Angeles example.

The Education Department, citing Census data, estimates there are from 1.2 million to 1.7 million children nationwide who are ”limited English proficient.”

After budget deficit cuts, the federal bilingual program last year received about $133 million. It’s expected to get about $143 million in the coming school year, a department spokeswoman said.

While activists in the so-called English-only movement hailed the Los Angeles teachers vote, bilingual education advocates said the election had more to do with job security than the merits of bilingual language instruction.

The bilingual advocates also called the vote by unionized teachers highly irregular and sardonically asked whether votes on other controversial issues are next.

”It’s somewhat ironic that teachers who can’t or won’t learn a second language in seven years expect children to do so immediately,” said Jim Lyons, the Washington-based legal counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education.

”The referendum isn’t about what is best for children,” said Lyons. ”It’s what is easiest for teachers.”

Richard Larson, legal director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles, said the vote runs counter to federal laws prohibiting discrimination of limited-English speaking children in public schools and could invite a legal challenge.

One veteran bilingual education observer on Capital Hill, who spoke privately, asked, ”Are we going to see teachers voting on whether there’s enough religion in schools? You just don’t have unions voting on instruction for children.”

But Mary Futrell, president of the NEA, said that while she was ”surprised” at vote’s outcome, it reflected a failure of local school administrators to consider teacher views on curriculum matters.

”The message to the school district is if you don’t want curriculum decisions decided in this manner, then involve teachers in what curriculum instruction is going to be,” Futrell said.

Still, Futrell said she was concerned ”that we are going to experience a digression to the 1960s” when students with limited-English speaking skills were placed in special education classes and that it could ”exacerbate the dropout problem.”

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