California has more than half a million public-school students who speak little or no English. Some are fortunate; they attend schools with programs that help them learn English and with teachers who can communicate with them while they are learning it. Others, frustrated as they fall behind in classes that they can’t comprehend, drop out. California must strengthen its bilingual-education program to help these youngsters.

The Legislature is considering a measure that would extend and somewhat revise the existing program. The bill, AB 2813, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, passed the Assembly on a 41-31 vote and will come before the Senate Education Committee soon. It is time for the Legislature and the governor to unite behind this measure, but certain misperceptions stand in the way of that unity.

To be blunt about it, some people who never were friends of bilingual education think that, since it largely benefits Latinos, it benefits only Democrats. That unfairly pigeonholes an entire group of people and hurts the youngsters, who need English to succeed in school and in later life.

These critics also remember early advocates of bilingual education who said, among other things, that these programs would keep Spanish alive among Latino students and promote a strong Latino identity. There’s much to be said for appreciating one’s heritage, but that never was and certainly is not now the main objective of bilingual education. It is and should be unequivocally designed to help students master English as quickly as possible.

And, finally, some critics argue that the programs don’t work. California’s alarming dropout rate clearly indicates that some students fail despite the existence of bilingual education. But the state has never given the schools the resources to do the job right. For example, a new report by the Assembly Office of Research says that only one-third of the students supposedly served by bilingual programs are actually in bilingual classrooms, and that the state is producing only about one-half the trained bilingual teachers that it needs.

There is no comprehensive report concerning the results of bilingual education in California. The state Department of Education should be directed to develop a plan for such a study. Money for the study could be provided in next year’s budget.

In the meantime, the Assembly report looks at what evidence there is and finds that some programs have been extremely successful. “Impressive gains have been demonstrated,” the report says, when students have a bilingual teacher who starts them in their academic subjects in a language they understand while English is presented to them in a clear manner at the same time. School districts report that students become fluent in English in two to three years, and their test scores are at or above normal.

AB 2813 would make some changes in the existing law to spell out more clearly for parents what options their children have, to give schools more flexibility about when they can mix English-speaking students and non-English-speakers in classes during the day, and to extend the time during which a teacher may participate in a bilingual program while working toward the proper permanent credentials.

The legislation is an important first step in that it would extend the existing program until 1992. But the state still needs better information about what works and about better means of holding school districts accountable for their students’ progress. And the state, through its Department of Education and the California State University campuses that produce many of the state’s teachers, must stretch much harder to provide bilingual teachers.

California has long been a national leader in bilingual education. The state needs to do more than just reiterate the status quo to maintain that leadership. It can start by passing AB 2813.

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