JUST AS Propositions 187 and 209 sprang from legitimate discontent, the current effort to pass a ballot initiative that would virtually ban bilingual education stems from unhappiness over a flawed system.

Unfortunately, as with the voter reaction to soaring illegal immigration into California and a few unfair affirmative action programs, the proposed remedy creates more problems than it solves. Sensible reform is ignored in favor of wedge-issue overkill.

“For Latinos, we see this as three in a row,” said Theresa Bustillos of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “You can’t help but think this is going to continue to divide the state.”

Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley multimillionaire entrepreneur and failed GOP gubernatorial hopeful, is spearheading an initiative drive aimed at requiring the 1.3 million California students with meager English skills to be taught almost exclusively in English unless their parents obtain a special waiver.

Unz’s proposed “English for the Children” initiative is too extreme. There is enough evidence that children progress academically if they are first taught core subjects in their native language to keep bilingual education as the prime option for local school districts. Conversely, past experience has shown that many children languish, fail academically and even come to hate school if they are plunked into an English- only setting.

At the same time, there is evidence that too many bilingual-education students are not receiving enough concentrated instruction in English, thus delaying the date they are proficient in the language.

Nearly 1 in 5 California students qualifies for bilingual education — 77 percent of them in Spanish — although only about one-third of those who qualify are placed in bilingual programs. The idea behind the two-language instruction has been that children should not have to lose academic ground while they are learning English. A 1981 state Supreme Court ruling required districts to ensure that “students do not suffer educational or academic deficits because of their English language limitations.”

Typically, then, the method used to prevent those “educational or academic deficits” has been to teach math, social studies and other academic subjects in children’s native language — if the teachers are available — with the goal of bringing the kids up to a level of fluency and literacy in English so they can make the jump to all-English instruction.

Most programs follow that original philosophy, but in too many instances, and as the bilingual education bureaucracy has grown into a $370 million industry, many educators have become lax in emphasizing speedy and effective English instruction so that students can join mainstream classes.

On one side are Unz and others who say all-English instruction is the answer. On the other are ardent bilingual advocates who equate a lengthy bilingual program with maintaining native culture, involving non- English-speaking parents in their children’s education and promoting a bilingual society.

California deserves neither extreme, and fortunately, a middle ground exists. Senator Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Santa Barbara, plan to revive in January a compromise bilingual education bill that addresses the complaints of critics without a wholesale reversion to the harmful “sink or swim” philosophy of the past that sometimes went so far as to punish students for speaking their native tongue.

The measure does take the dramatic step of eliminating the requirement that most children whose first language is not English be taught in their native language. The proposal instead would give local districts flexibility to decide what method will work best for their particular mix of students who lack English skills.

But to counterbalance that significant change, it for the first time would make school districts measure the educational progress of students who arrive at school not fluent in English.

If after three years, the students showed little progress in academics or English proficiency, the districts would be required to revamp their plan. If no progress was indicated after five years, the state would step in to oversee the program.

Reform of bilingual education has been attempted for the past 10 years in the Legislature, always to no avail. This year, the Alpert- Firestone bill was approved in the Senate but Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante — reportedly because of pressure from Latinos who do not want bilingual education dismantled — refused to let it out of committee.

What the bilingual advocates persist in denying is that if they refuse to compromise, they may well have to accept a return to a time with no bilingual education at all and no flexibility for local districts to muster their resources in the best way possible to both educate and to teach English.

Alpert’s measure recognizes some of the harsh realities that too often have been ignored in the ideological battle over bilingual education:

— Resources — from materials to competent bilingual instructors — vary >from district to district. There is an estimated shortage of 26,000 bilingual teachers at the same time the limited English-speaking student population is growing.

— With 1.3 million students who lack English skills, not all districts can run primary language programs.

— A mix of students speaking different languages may preclude a bilingual class, and room for creativity can mean the difference between a successful program and one that is less successful.

— There exists what Alpert calls “perverse financial incentives” for maintaining kids in bilingual programs.

If lawmakers do not seize the opportunity for sensible reform in January, they will have little ammunition with which to argue against Unz’s more drastic remedy.

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