School flexibility gets backing

State panel says districts should decide how to teach non-English speakers

SACRAMENTO — The California State Board of Education on Wednesday reaffirmed its stance that local districts know best how to teach students who speak little or no English, endorsing a policy that emphasizes local choice and flexibility.

“It gives every district the right to do what’s right for their community,” said board President Yvonne Larsen.

The action comes just a month after the board rescinded a 1995 policy that required districts to seek waivers if they chose not to teach non-English-speaking students in their primary language.

For years the State Department of Education had encouraged districts to teach students in their native language. But a ruling by a superior court judge in February found that the state board had no authority to require districts to seek waivers if they chose another program because there was no longer any law prescribing a specific educational approach.

In addition to endorsing local flexibility, the board’s new policy says that districts should adopt programs that are based on sound educational theory and that parents should be involved in determining the type of program in which their child should be. Such requirements reflect federal law governing the education of students who speak little or no English.

At the same time, the board specifically forbade the department of education from promoting any particular methodology or program for teaching non-English-speaking students. Previously, the department had strongly encouraged bilingual instruction.

Board members acknowledged, however, that a June ballot measure could supersede Wednesday’s action. If voters approve Proposition 227 on the June 2 ballot, the education of the state’s 1.4 million students who speak little or no English would change radically.

The initiative, sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, would virtually eliminate bilingual education in favor of programs that teach students in English only. Students who speak little or no English would be placed in one-year intensive English classes before being put into regular classrooms.

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