California’s debate over bilingual education is attracting attention from federal legislators.

Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Napa, held a House education subcommittee hearing in San Diego yesterday to gather input on bilingual education reform legislation he is proposing this year.

During the three-hour hearing held in the San Diego City Council chambers, Riggs and other members of his subcommittee, along with local Congressmen Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Brian Bilbray and Bob Filner, heard mostly from people in favor of radically changing bilingual education.

There were emotional stories from parent George Louie and his 5-year-old son, Travell, over their struggle to have Travell removed from a Chinese bilingual classroom in Oakland.

Anaheim third-grade teacher Cathy Liska told of the struggles she and fellow teachers have had at her school in their fight to keep English immersion classes rather than switching to native-language instruction.

Then there was the data-driven discussion of Dr. Eugene Garcia, dean of UC-Berkeley’s graduate school of education, as he touted numerous studies that show students achieve better academically if they are taught in their native language.

The sharp contrasts in testimony show how far apart the supporters and opponents of bilingual education are.

Field Polls indicate a large majority of California residents supporting Proposition 227, the English for the Children Initiative that would dismantle bilingual education. But within that large majority is another large number of people who think that one year is not enough to learn English, which is the major thrust of the initiative.

Supporters continue to point to numerous studies that show students learn better if taught in their native language and then are transitioned into English. There have been no studies to support a one-year immersion program as being effective, Garcia said.

Legislation proposed by Riggs would require children entering school in kindergarten be able to read and write in English by the end of the first grade.

Riggs’ bill proposes that the $350 million currently spent on bilingual education funds be given out to states in the form of block grants. The bill also would require parents to sign annual forms to enter bilingual programs for their children.

Filner, D-San Diego, criticized the timing of the hearing, especially in light of Riggs’ announcement this week that he was running for Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat.

“This should be a fair debate,” Filner said. “I’m very disappointed that you use the resources of the U.S. Congress a couple days after you announce for Senate.”

A dozen audience members, who were not allowed to take part in the debate, also expressed criticism as they were leaving the hearing site.

Riggs said the hearing had been planned since last fall and it was being held to get input on an important matter for the entire country.

“Just because I’m running for office, whether it’s for Senate or for re-election to Congress, I’m not going to stop doing my job as an elected official and a legislator.”

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