With just under two weeks to go until the June 2 election, Gov. Pete Wilson made clear this week his disappointment with the state’s existing bilingual education programs.
With a single stroke, Wilson simultaneously endorsed Proposition 227, the initiative that seeks to terminate existing bilingual education programs and vetoed a bill that would have given local school districts the power to choose among bilingual education programs, and would have also held schools accountable for students who did not progress through programs within specified time frames.
The bill had been regarded as the best hope among many advocates of bilingual education who preferred the measure to Proposition 227, which calls for virtually eliminating existing bilingual education programs statewide and replacing them with a year of English immersion.
The bipartisan bill, known as SB6, would have allowed local districts to decide how best to teach the state’s 1.5 million limited-English proficient students. Through the bill, which was authored by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Olivos, districts could decide what method of language instruction–whether it be bilingual or immersion programs, or a combination of programs–would best serve the school’s students.
Moreover, the bill sought to make schools accountable for students’ progress. Under the bill, schools were required to assess students’ progress annually–if they did not progress after two years, the program would have to be overhauled.
In his veto message, Wilson said: "Bilingual education in California has been a serious failure. It has done a serious disservice by keeping LEP [limited-English proficient] students dependent on their primary language for far too long. By denying them early fluency in English, bilingual programs have seriously short-changed these children educationally."
Many educators were not surprised by Wilson’s decision to veto SB6 and endorse Proposition 227, given his past stances on Proposition 209 and Proposition 187. "[The state superintendent] is not surprised either of Wilson’s veto or his support of 227. The governor has taken California through eight long years of negativism, and we have yet to emerge from this," said Henry Der, deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education. "The governor seems to be more interested in politics than instituting reform in bilingual education that would benefit the 1.5 million English learners in California. SB6 called for school accountability in educating English learners … They don’t have that accountability right now."
Castelar Elementary School, which is situated in the heart of Los Angeles Chinatown, currently has 14 bilingual education classes. Of the 950 students attending the school, 80 percent of the students are of Asian descent, with approximately 500 of those students being classified as English learners.
Principal Cheuk Choi opposed Proposition 227, and was disappointed when he heard SB6 was vetoed by Wilson. "SB6 was really the bill I was looking forward to, because that would have given us some local control," Choi said.
Although a recent California Field Poll found that 74 percent of Asian American respondents favored Proposition 227, Choi said that his own discussions with parents at his school revealed quite the contrary. "So far with all the parents we talked to, they feel they do need bilingual education, basically for their particular needs at this point," Choi said. "Our program is meeting the needs of parents and students in learning English, also, they felt that if it was taken away from them, what would they do, how would they communicate with the school children … there was a real concern of the consequences," in losing bilingual education, he said.
What was most appealing about SB6 to many educators, was the freedom it gave local districts to make their own decisions.
"What we have to have is local decisions … The areas that are working, they should have the ability to continue and the ones that are not working, they should intervene and see what is the matter with it, and locally decide what they’re going to do about it," said George Kiriyama, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board. "We’re talking about giving the community their rights for kinds of programs they want … If the Chinatown community wants Chinese programs in Cantonese and Mandarin … if the community is predominantly Chinese, give it to them. Why would we interfere with the community if they want it?" Kiriyama asked.
Opponents hope Wilson’s endorsement doesn’t clinch the deal for Proposition 227. Lisa Kwong, president of the S.F.-based The Association of Chinese Teachers, said: "I really do believe that a lot of people will try to do what’s best for the children by looking at the issues themselves, and not say ‘Oh the governor is for it, and therefore I’m going to vote for it, too."