Plan for Bilingual Education Reform Advances

State Senate: Schools would not have to teach students in native language, but would have to monitor their progress. Amendments bolster parents' role.

A bill that promises a dramatic overhaul of the state’s bilingual education laws surmounted a key hurdle Wednesday, passing the state Senate Education Committee after a sometimes tense, hourlong debate.

The measure is intended to junk current state rules requiring most of the 1.2 million children in the state who are not fluent in English to be taught in their native language. Instead, districts could choose among several approaches, including teaching only in English.

During the hearing, the bill’s authors, Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) and Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), accepted several key amendments to increase parents’ influence over curriculum decisions and to strengthen requirements that the academic progress of students who do not speak English be closely monitored.

Although the bill passed the Democrat-dominated committee on a 7-0 vote, it must still pass the full Senate and return to the Assembly for concurrence on the amendments.

“We’re in good shape,” said a pleased but still cautious Firestone. “We just might have accomplished something here that is just very, very important for California.”

But Alpert said she is worried the Republican-dominated Assembly still could sink the bill. She said Republicans are threatening to link passage of the bill to separate legislation requiring merit pay for teachers that is backed by Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove).

“I feel we’ve got a strong proposal now, one that really addresses the needs expressed by all groups,” Alpert said. “But there’s an awful lot of things that can still go wrong. We are by no means out of the woods on this.”

Current policy requires school districts, in most cases, to hire teachers who are capable of conducting class in the language that students speak at home. That requirement has been criticized by some for not teaching students English quickly enough and for making it hard for districts to find enough qualified teachers.

If the bill passes, school districts would find it far easier to use several other instructional methods that rely principally on English.

Regardless of the method they select, however, districts would have to test students to see that they are meeting certain academic goals or face the possibility that the state Board of Education might step in. An amendment added Wednesday would require, for the first time, that those tests be conducted in the child’s first language.

The bill has been the focus of intense lobbying efforts by groups favoring bilingual education, who still worry that it would allow schools to get away without serving students who do not speak English.

An amendment agreed to Wednesday made it clear that students should be taught in the language they use at home–when necessary. But that language was then softened to make it clear that the intent of the bill was still to give school districts broad flexibility in making that decision.

Benjamin Lopez, a key lobbyist for a coalition of pro-bilingual education groups, said that the hearing improved the bill in some ways but not enough, and that he would continue seeking changes.

Firestone’s original bill was based largely on recommendations from the state’s watchdog Little Hoover Commission. Jeannine English, the commission’s executive director, said the amendment requiring the use of a student’s primary language, when necessary, could weaken the bill so much that it will not win backing from Assembly conservatives.

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