Bilingual Education Issue

Sacramento gets hot potato; Legislature must fully confront public school program

The debate over bilingual education shifts this week to Sacramento. Reform is long overdue on the critical problem of teaching a growing number of schoolchildren who are not fluent in English. The goal should be achieving proficiency in verbal and written English as quickly as possible.

Skyrocketing enrollment of children who speak little or no English puts intense pressure on the state’s public school districts. English is a second language for more than 1.26 million public school students, most of whom speak Spanish at home. This trend is expected to continue because of the generally high Latino birthrate and continued immigration from Spanish-speaking countries.

Federal law and a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision guarantee equal access to public education for all children regardless of their native language. In the shadow of the ugly national debate over immigration, state lawmakers will be grappling with bilingual education in a heavily political atmosphere. The challenge is a major one.

An Assembly committee is expected to consider a bill that would give local school districts greater freedom in teaching non-English-speaking children basic subjects as long as the students made progress. It sounds simple, but although California has had bilingual education for 20 years the results have been uneven and in some cases crippling to the child’s further education. The bill, AB 2310, sponsored by a moderate Republican assemblyman, Brooks Firestone of Los Olivos, has some merit. It is results-oriented. It would allow freedom from traditional bilingual teaching methods if students were shown to be making progress. That high–and appropriate–hurdle is needed to show whether an approach works and to avoid a surge in the failure rate of bilingual students.

The bill would also require the development of a statewide assessment system to measure that progress. Such a system should be in place now–but is not–to chart the long-term gain. The proposed system would provide a snapshot of educational needs. How many students are spending six or seven years in classes taught in their first language before finally making the transition to mainstream English-language classes? How many are ending up illiterate in two languages because the system somehow failed them, and how many are becoming fully literate in English?

The Firestone bill is expected to zip through the Republican-dominated Assembly. But the measure, as written, has some problems. It would reduce the amount of training required for teachers. They need more–not less–training to overcome the difficulties of educating non-English-speaking students.

The Firestone bill is likely to stall in the Democrat-controlled Senate, but nevertheless it offers a good starting point for the legislative debate on how to teach a second language. Other bills are pending but few have the prospects of this measure.

Especially at a time when overall enrollment is growing at a rate of 1,500 classrooms a year, California cannot afford to reduce its commitment to bilingual education. These students represent a key part of California’s future.

Language Limits

The number of students in California who are not fluent in English (kindergarten through 12th grade):

1985: 524,000

1990: 861,531

1995: 1.26 million

Source: California Department of Education

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