The opponents of bilingual education thought they drove a stake through its heart in 1987, when former Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed an extension of the program.
But the state Department of Education, citing special protection for school programs, simply issued new policy guidelines and began a renewed push to force school districts to offer bilingual education.
Few state programs have been enforced with greater vigor. The state sends inspectors into local school districts, threatens to cut off funds to enforce compliance, and continuously monitors districts such as San Diego Unified.
“The school districts are supposed to provide native language instruction, and that’s what we do,” said Fred Tempes, director of the Department of Education compliance unit.
Some school officials complained to the Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency, that the new guidelines issued by the department are more stringent than the bilingual education law that expired a decade ago.
The Department of Education was accused of issuing what are known at the Capitol as “underground” regulations — rules that reflect the views of bureaucrats in the state agencies, rather than the laws enacted by elected officials.
But when the Little Hoover Commission asked the state Office of Administrative Law for a ruling three years ago, the office ruled that the Department of Education did not issue “underground” regulations.
It was an endorsement of the department’s view that under special protections for education programs, only the specific requirements in the bilingual education law expired, not the “general or intended purposes” of the law.
Now the opponents of bilingual education see new hope — and supporters a new threat — in an initiative written by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, a Republican who ran for governor in 1994.
The initiative campaign says it has submitted about 750,000 signatures, more than the 433,269 needed to qualify the measure for the June ballot. A statewide Field Poll in November found the initiative favored by 69 percent of voters and 66 percent of Latinos.
The initiative would impose a new state program for the growing number of young students who do not speak English. The bilingual programs in which teachers speak to the students mainly in their native languages for up to seven years would be eliminated, unless parents are granted a waiver.
Instead, teachers speaking mainly in English would quickly teach children in a “sheltered English immersion” program, which supporters say takes about a year to get the students ready for mainstream classes.
Getting local districts to follow the state’s bilingual education policy has not been an easy task. Three years ago, the state twisted the arm of the Stockton Unified School District, withholding $3 million in funds until the district agreed to comply.
More than half of the Stockton students classified by the state as “limited English proficient” (LEP) spoke Asian languages for which there are few certified teachers. Stockton officials tried to set up an immersion program, but did not apply for the necessary waiver from the state.
“Basically, they are doing a good job now,” said Tempes, the state compliance director. “They are pleased. We are pleased, and we are moving on.”
Currently, the state is threatening to withhold $4 million from the Oakland Unified School District. Critics say the district has not hired enough bilingual education teachers who speak Spanish or one of several Asian languages.
But black parents in Oakland have complained that their children are not getting what they need in the classroom, while extra resources go to immigrant children who speak foreign languages. Last year, the district briefly considered making black dialect, called ebonics, eligible for bilingual funding.
San Diego Unified is what has become known as a “Comite” district, one of about 30 districts selected by the state for continuous monitoring of their bilingual education programs under a state court order.
Several Latino groups, including Comite de Padres de Familia in Contra Costa County, filed a lawsuit contending that school districts were not complying with the bilingual education law. The Latino groups said problems found during inspections, now conducted once every four years, were not being corrected by the districts.
“I think their view was hold their feet to the fire and make them squirm,” said Tempes. “Our view was more of a technical compliance.”
At San Diego Unified, about 39,000 students (29 percent of the total of 133,000) are classified as having limited English, speaking 50 different languages. Two-thirds of the LEP students speak Spanish, and the rest speak mainly various Asian and African languages.
Nearly all the bilingual education programs offered by San Diego Unified are in Spanish, said Tim Allen, the district’s director of second language education. Most of the instruction for students speaking other languages is through immersion or specially designed programs.
Three years ago, state inspectors found that San Diego Unified was out of compliance with the bilingual education law in more than a dozen areas. Since then the district has added extra staff, improved training and stepped up monitoring of schools.
A new compliance agreement with the state was due last July. But the district requested a delay while correcting problems in its special education program. Allen said a new agreement is in the works.
“If we do well this year, we may even get to the point where we can graduate from this status — not because it’s bad, but because it’s better to do things feeling you are not under some kind of agreement,” said Allen.
A local-control plan stalls
In 1993, the Little Hoover Commission recommended that the state lift the heavy hand of state regulation by giving local school districts more flexibility in the education of students with limited English.
The commission’s view is reflected in legislation by state Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos. The bill passed the Senate this year, but stalled in the Assembly and will be taken up again next year.
The legislation is opposed primarily by Latino legislators, who fear that bilingual education would be weakened. On the other hand, the bill also is opposed by Unz, who fears that bilingual education programs would be left in place.
Unz said most bilingual education programs are operating in large urban districts with strong support from local officials. He said many of the state’s LEP students are in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has 310,000 students with limited English.
“If the Alpert-Firestone bill passed, the result is that the overwhelming majority of the children in these failed programs would remain there,” said Unz.
The board of the Los Angeles Unified district voted unanimously to oppose the Unz initiative. But the members of the teachers’ union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, voted to oppose the initiative by a thin margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.
Unz said another problem is that the local control granted by Alpert’s bill could result in endless political battles. He said bilingual education might routinely become a heated issue in local school board elections, particularly if only one or two seats held the balance of power.
But in Alpert’s view, the potential dominance of school boards would be dampened by a provision in the bill requiring parent advisory committees to develop plans for educating students with limited English.
“Even at one school site, you could have multiple programs, depending on what works best for kids,” she said.
Alpert said Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante, D-Fresno, has told her the bill will get a hearing after the Legislature returns next month. She has talked during the interim with Bustamante’s point man on the issue, Assemblyman Mike Honda, D-San Jose.
“We are still working together,” Alpert said. “We are still talking.”
Meanwhile, the state Board of Education is slowly giving school districts more flexibility. The board, whose 11 members are appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson, has begun granting school districts waivers from the bilingual education requirement.
Waivers granted by the board in the past had only been for schools, often because they could not find teachers qualified in the foreign language spoken by their students.
Westminster School District in Orange County became the first district in the state to receive a waiver. Bilingual education was replaced with a sheltered immersion program, which uses bilingual aides to help teachers who conduct lessons in English.
The board also has granted bilingual education waivers to three other Orange County school districts: Orange Unified, Magnolia and Savanna.
A federal court declined to issue a restraining order sought by supporters of bilingual education. Now a state court has been asked to decide whether the board acted improperly when it issued waivers to the school districts.
The board has scheduled a general hearing on bilingual education on Feb. 9. Among other things, the board wants to give school districts that have been complaining about heavy-handed state regulation a chance to air their grievances in public.
“There have been people who have said the department, through its own underground rules, has made them feel like they are stuck in a 1986 time warp,” said Bill Lucia, the board executive director. “We will see if districts are willing to stand up and say that.”