Senate sends bilingual education bill to Wilson

SACRAMENTO — The Senate on Monday presented Gov. Pete Wilson with the politically charged decision of having to either sign or veto a bilingual education reform bill just weeks before Californians are asked to decide the fate of a controversial initiative on the same subject.

Wilson, who has yet to take a position on Proposition 227, declined to say whether he will sign the reform bill. “This comes at the last moment,” he said. “I will wait until I’ve had the opportunity to totally assess the bill.”

Although he said he didn’t view it as such, the Senate’s action would appear to put Wilson in an either-or situation: Either sign the reform bill passed by the Legislature or endorse Proposition 227.

The two proposals take radically different approaches to the challenge of educating 1.4 million California schoolchildren who speak little or no English.

The bill, SB6, would give local school districts the right to establish bilingual programs they feel best meet the needs of their students, and then hold them accountable for how well their students learn English and perform academically.

Proposition 227, sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, would establish a single statewide approach: one year of English-language immersion and then mainstreaming the children into regular classrooms.

The reform bill, co-authored by Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos, and Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, passed the Senate 21-13, a single vote more than the majority needed. Only one Republican, Bruce McPherson of Santa Cruz, voted in favor.

The partisan split reflected the back-and-forth political history of the bill, as over the four-year effort to get it passed it has been alternately opposed by Republicans and Democrats.

Last year the bill passed the Senate with only three dissenting votes, but now Republicans argued that the dynamics have changed with a June 2 Judgment Day nearing on the Unz initiative.

“Do we honestly believe we can pull the wool over the voters’ eyes?” asked Republican leader Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine. “This would be seen by the people of California for exactly what it is — a desperate, last-minute attempt to hold off an initiative that is almost certain to pass.”

Alpert argued that her bill, four years in the making, cannot be fairly characterized as a last-ditch attempt to defeat Proposition 227.

The emphasis on local control, she said, is the key element that makes the bill superior to the initiative. “The ultimate top-down approach is the Unz initiative,” she said. “We do not pick one methodology. E This bill will demand accountability — these students must learn English and succeed academically. That is the proper role for the state: setting standards and holding school districts accountable, not being the school board in the sky.”

Sen. Cathie Wright, R-Simi Valley, voted against, reversing her vote of a year ago. She said a recent decision by the state School Board gives districts the same flexibility. “This bill is not really needed,” she said.

Wright has not taken a position on Proposition 227, saying she will have “to give it one more reading” before deciding how to vote.

Once the bill reaches his desk, Wilson will have 12 days to decide whether to sign it.

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