SACRAMENTO—Legislative supporters of the new voter-approved initiative that declares English to be California’s official language have selected bilingual education as the first target to “preserve and enhance” English in the state.

“We want to change the fundamental focus of bilingual education in California away from native language instruction,” said Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier), an advocate of Proposition 63, the so-called “English only” ballot measure overwhelmingly approved by the voters Nov. 4.

“The real battlefield, at first, will be over bilingual education,” Hill forecast.

The state Department of Education said 567,000 students who speak limited English participated this year in bilingual programs aimed at developing fluency in English.

Aside from the expected fight over bilingual education, a highly controversial issue since it was instituted a decade ago, it appears that Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and key Democratic leaders are in no hurry to enact laws to implement the “English only” initiative.

Presumably such laws would be aimed at putting into force a key provision in the initiative directing state officials and the Legislature to “ensure that the role of English as the common language of the state of California is preserved and enhanced.”

There has been no great rush to come up with proposals spelling out what that means.

A day after the measure passed, Deukmejian adopted a wait-and-see attitude that he has not changed publicly. He noted that the measure gave California residents and people doing business in the state the standing to sue to enforce the initiative’s somewhat vague provisions and predicted that “many, many lawsuits” will be filed by people intent on trying to interpret it.

He demurred, however, on how he intends to enforce the initiative.

Meanwhile, top Democratic leaders in the Legislature are adopting a go-slow approach.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who co-authored a ballot argument against the proposition, said he could not “see any of the substantive things being altered” by his house of the Legislature.

Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who also opposed Proposition 63, basically agreed with Brown but said that some legislation may emerge.

“We have a duty to implemt 40,000.

“We’ve got immigrants who want to learn English, and we ought to be doing everything as a society to encourage those,” he said.

Still, bilingual education remains a front-burner issue with both Speaker Brown and Hill. Brown carried legislation last year that would have extended the 10-year life of bilingual and several other education programs until 1992.

Deukmejian vetoed the bill on grounds that such programs should be thoroughly reexamined to determine their cost effectiveness. He ordered a review by the Department of Finance and said it will be completed “long before these programs” are due to expire. As a result of the veto, and without further legislative action, the state regulations governing bilingual education are scheduled to expire June 30.

(The money for bilingual will keep flowing, however, because of a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held that equal educational opportunities must be extended to children who do not speak English, including instruction in their primary language, if necessary.)

Critics of bilingual programs, who contend that the emphasis on teaching English to foreign-language speaking students has been lost, hailed the governor’s veto. Angry supporters of bilingual education condemned it as a severe setback to the learning of Latino, American Indian, Southeast Asian and other children who do not speak English.

Armed with both the veto and passage of the English language constitutional amendment, Hill and others see bilingual education as ripe for massive reconstruction with a rock solid English language foundation.

Brown Will Try Again

But Brown said he will be back with his bilingual education bill, which, among other things, sought to give local districts greater flexibility in operating programs, and setting the size, composition and types of bilingual classes.

Anticipating a fight, in which Deukmejian is certain to be a key participant in shaping bilingual education, Brown said: “I will, of course, make an effort to keep bilingual in place.”

Recalling that the vetoed bill was endorsed by an advisory committee that contained six appointees of Deukmejian, Brown asserted that “the bill contained every reform everyone could think of short of wiping (bilingual education) out.”

Hill, however, noted that Republican critics of bilingual education seem to be in a stronger position now than they were before Brown’s bill barely squeaked out of the Assembly.

For one thing, for a bilingual bill to take effect by June 30, it must be approved by 54 votes in the Assembly. This means that if all 44 Assembly Democrats supported it, passage would require at least 10 minority Republicans to vote “aye.” In exchange for their support, Hill said Brown and other Democrats would have to accept “reforms we want in the system.”

Too Much Instruction

He and other critics maintain that too much instruction is given in their native language to students who do not speak English, that those students remain in bilingual classes too long and that too much emphasis is placed on their cultural background.

“A fourth grader goes to his fourth-grade class and we teach him multiplication tables in Spanish with the help of a bilingual teacher and an aide, instead of concentrating on teaching him the English language,” Hill said.

Among other changes, Hill said, English language proponents want to see enacted a “test developed at every grade level that would prove a student’s proficiency (in English). We need some way to figure out whether they are ready to leave a bilingual class.”

“We want written parental permission before a child is placed in a bilingual class,” he said.

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