New bilingual ed policy OK'd

Board's non-binding action gives school districts flexibility

The California State Board of Education unanimously adopted a new policy on bilingual education Wednesday that allows local school districts to choose how to educate students who are limited in English.

“It gives every district the opportunity to do what is right for its community. We have so many languages (in California),” board president Yvonne W. Larsen said after the vote. “It just gives school districts greater flexibility.”

But the action was decried by bilingual education advocates, who argued that children who do not speak English will fail if they are not taught other academic subjects in their native languages.

“The board is saying that 1.4 million students will not have appropriate access to the curriculum and yet, they’ll be expected to meet academic content standards. . . . It’s encouraging school districts to disregard what students need,” said Mara Quezada, president of the California Association for Bilingual Education.

Last month, the state board rescinded its longstanding policy mandating bilingual education after a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled that the state could no longer enforce a law that had expired in 1987. Before the ruling, the state required districts to provide instruction in students’ primary languages unless a waiver was obtained from the state board.

Larsen said the board needed to act Wednesday to fill the void created by the repeal of the old policy. Much of the new policy is based on federal law, which does not mandate primary-language instruction but does require districts to take “appropriate action” to give students who don’t speak English equal access to instructional programs.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin — who disagreed with the board on certain aspects of the new policy — downplayed its importance.

“The board has essentially expressed its opinion. The Legislature has to set state law,” Eastin said, adding that the “next big policy change” will be decided by legislators who are now considering a bilingual education bill or by voters June 2 when they decide the fate of Prop. 227, which would outlaw bilingual education except in limited circumstances.

A bill by state Sen. Deirdre Alpert, D-Coronado, would give local districts the power to choose which approaches to use with students learning English, but would also hold them accountable for results. The measure, SB 6, passed in the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week and now moves to the Assembly floor.

Prop. 227 author Ron Unz said last week that while he applauds the board’s decision to eliminate the state bilingual education mandate, the initiative is still needed.

“Most (limited-English-proficient) students are in large districts, all of which are absolutely and totally committed to bilingual education. They will change nothing,” Unz said.

The board policy adopted Wednesday is not binding on local school districts but rather meant to serve as guidance.

A lengthier process, including public hearings, would be required to change state regulations on the books, but the board indicated it would wait for the outcome of the Unz initiative before taking that step. The passage of either the initiative or the Alpert bill would take precedence.

The policy states that the purpose of the state’s bilingual education program “is to develop in each child fluency in English as effectively and as efficiently as possible.” It says districts may use “any program based on sound educational theory or a legitimate educational strategy,” and emphasizes that the state Department of Education “shall not promote any particular methodology or program in performing its compliance and support activities.”

Eastin disagreed with the board over a portion of the policy that allows schools to delay teaching students other academic subjects while they are learning English “as long as over a reasonable period of time English learners do not suffer academically.” Attorneys for both the board and the Department of Education agreed that such an approach is allowed under federal law.

But Eastin argued that state legislation which continued funding for bilingual education after the law expired in 1987 included “equal opportunity for academic achievement” as one of its purposes.

“What is a ‘reasonable period of time? I would argue we cannot let these kids fall behind,” she said.

Quezada agreed.

“If you look at the education process, it’s sequential. It’s based on skills learned in earlier years,” she said. Jim Sweeney, superintendent of Sacramento City Unified schools, praised the state board for giving local districts greater control, but said the new policy will not change how the district educates English learners.

“It removes one of the things that was one more form to fill out or process you have to go through” by no longer requiring to seek waivers, Sweeney said.

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