Panel OKs Overhaul of Bilingual Ed

Assembly: Bill would scrap states rules favoring instruction in children's native language and give school district much wider choice of instructional methods.

SACRAMENTO—A bill that would wipe out the state’s 20-year-old approach to educating the nearly 1.3 million California students who do not speak English fluently was endorsed Wednesday by the Republican-dominated Assembly Education Committee.

Authored by Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos), the bill would scrap state regulations favoring instruction in a child’s home language and replace them with a potentially wide-open system in which school districts could try a variety of instructional methods.

“The bottom line is that what we are doing is desperately not working,” said Firestone, citing statistics showing that fewer than six out of every 100 students who come to school speaking a language other than English move into mainstream classes each year.

To ensure that school districts do not use their new freedom simply to abandon those students, however, the bill would create a means of measuring whether they are learning English in a timely fashion and keeping pace academically with their peers. Eventually, the state Department of Education could intervene in districts where students are not succeeding.

“We tried to make this bill positive, sensitive and productive and we are trying to accomplish a solution to a very real problem without throwing out that which is good,” said Firestone.

The bill, AB 2310, passed the committee on a 9-2 vote with two abstentions but got only one Democratic vote–from Kerry Mazzoni of Novato. It is expected to pass the Republican-controlled Assembly soon, but may face rough going in the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority.

Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said she liked parts of the bill but feared that it would allow “schools to adopt the most expedient way of teaching . . . which is immersion” and would not pay sufficient attention to making sure students not fluent in English make academic progress. She abstained.

After the hearing, Firestone said he was disappointed that the bill did not win more support from Democrats and warned that he has been told that anti-bilingual education extremists are waiting in the wings if the programs are not reformed.

To enhance the measure’s chances, Firestone amended it at the request of the California Teachers Assn. to retain the present system of teacher credentialing and training and to emphasize that, in addition to learning English, students must also make progress in subjects such as math and history. As a result, the teachers union, the state’s largest, has taken a neutral position.

Representatives of several bilingual education groups that, in the past, have managed to water down or kill legislation on the subject also are working with Firestone to shape the bill to their liking.

“It’s one of the vehicles for reforming bilingual education,” said Jack Maladanof, a lobbyist for the California Assn. for Bilingual Education. “We don’t have a problem with flexibility. It’s with making sure that kids get what they need.”

Opponents testifying Wednesday included representatives of the California Federation of Teachers and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Jose Alejos R. Borrego, a lobbyist for the group, said the bill was vague and eliminated the state’s current bilingual education regulations without proposing anything to replace them. “We feel it is a good thing that we have some base from which to work and we feel that native language instruction is that base,” he said.

Research on bilingual education has come to mixed conclusions on which methods work best. Generally, students taught in their home language for at least several years do better academically in the long run and eventually have a better chance of becoming fluent in two languages.

But that approach has caused nagging practical problems, stemming partly from the state’s failure to train enough bilingual teachers to serve the rapidly growing number of students who come to school speaking any of dozens of non-English languages. Critics also say the programs take too long and do not deliver the bilingualism they promise, causing many students to lag behind and drop out.

Firestone’s bill incorporates many of the recommendations made by the Little Hoover Commission, the state’s bipartisan watchdog agency, in a critical 1993 report.

Testifying in favor of Firestone’s bill, Jeannine L. English, the commission’s executive director, said the state’s heavy reliance on instruction in students’ home language was “inappropriate, because neither federal or state law mandates one approach; unwarranted, because research has shown that a variety of methods can work . . . and not feasible because we do not have bilingual teachers to serve children’s needs and we have . . . over 110 different languages” spoken in classrooms.

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