In a victory for opponents of bilingual education, the state Board of Education reversed a decades-old policy yesterday by giving school districts the option of teaching all children solely in English.

The decision came at the urging of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation. Since California’s bilingual education law expired in 1987, the group’s lawyers argued, school districts should not have to teach in any language except English.

“It’s clear to me the provisions of the state Bilingual Education Act are inoperative,” said board member Janet Nicholas, who made the unexpected motion to rescind a state policy that tacitly favored bilingual education.

The initial impact of the decision may be relatively minor because most districts appear to favor bilingual education. Only five of the state’s 1,000 school districts had ever asked the board for a waiver, which had been required to teach solely in English. All five districts are in Southern California.

But the board’s vote yesterday underscored a growing dissatisfaction with bilingual education. The English-only movement has gained strength rapidly in California since Proposition 227 qualified for the June 2 ballot. The measure, which is popular in the polls, would ban such instruction altogether.

Although the board’s action has no direct effect on the initiative, supporters of Proposition 227 applauded the decision as a step in dismantling the state’s decades-old dual-language system.

Bilingual education supporters, meanwhile, said the decision will cheat students who depend on academic instruction in their native languages.

In taking their vote, board members relied on a Sacramento Superior Court ruling issued Friday that ended the board’s right to grant bilingual waivers. That ruling by Judge Ronald Robie had been considered a victory by supporters of bilingual education because the judge said all districts had to “provide academic instruction using the primary language when necessary.”

But the words “when necessary” gave the board latitude yesterday in allowing districts to choose whether to offer instruction in a pupil’s primary language. If waivers were no longer needed, the board reasoned, then districts were on their own.

“This is a bad decision,” said Joseph Jaramillo, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in San Francisco. “I think there was confusion on the board’s part about what the judge meant. School districts need to provide academic instruction in primary language.”

Jaramillo said the legal defense fund will fight the board’s move.

Scarcely noticed in all the debates is that only 416,000 children — fewer than one third of the 1.4 million non-English-speaking students enrolled in California public schools — receive any academic instruction in their native language.


Yet, bilingual education opponents said the board’s decision did not go far enough.

“School districts with entrenched bilingual education programs have no incentive to dismantle those programs,” said Sherri Annis, a spokeswoman for Proposition 227.

And because so few school districts seem interested in giving up the primary-language teaching option, she said, “the practical effect of this ruling will be negligible.”


Bay Area urban school districts — where many thousands of students speak little English — reacted with disappointment to the board’s decision. Most said they will retain their bilingual programs.

“It is a very sad time for minority-language speakers,” said Rosita Apodaca, head of bilingual education in San Francisco. “Instruction in the primary language provides them access to the core curriculum.”

In San Jose, “we do not plan to change our services to our students regardless of the state’s decision,” said Maureen Munroe, the district’s spokeswoman. “We intend to implement our transitional bilingual education program because it is the best instructional strategy to support our students academically while they learn English.”

Some districts, waving the banner of “local control,” praised the state move even as they denounced Proposition 227.

“Delivery of bilingual programs should be determined by school districts based on their needs,” said Linda Mayo, a Mt. Diablo school board member. “It should not be mandated by the state, because every school district has a different population that they need to serve.”

Concord High School junior Robbie Donohoe, 17, agreed. He is a member of “C-Beyond,” a Contra Costa County youth advocacy group that supports bilingual education. But giving some local control to districts could be good, he said, as long as it is not eliminated entirely.

“I think there should be some sort of mandate for something in every district, but the level should be determined at the district,” Donohoe said. “(The decision) allows flexibility so they can offer less or more, depending on the needs of their students.”


Last year, Oakland schools faced the threat of a $4 million funding freeze from state and federal officials for failing to provide adequate bilingual education, including enough textbooks and well-trained teachers. Superintendent Carole Quan said she did not know if the new rules would nullify portions of the district’s agreement to upgrade its programs by June 1999.

Nevertheless, she said, “I’m sure that there will be some kind of language assistance” in Oakland schools. More than 17,000 Oakland pupils speak little or no English.

California has no specific funding for bilingual education. But the state spent at least $319 million last year to train teachers and provide classroom aides and materials for immigrant children.

Yesterday’s decision will not affect such expenditures, attorneys said.

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