To end the bilingual morass

A bill in the Assembly would introduce more local flexibility in school practices; it's a good idea.

In 1993, the bipartisan Little Hoover Commission issued a report whose findings were already familiar to many who had followed the progress — or the lack thereof — of bilingual education in California’s public schools.

The report called for a wholesale overhaul of the state Department of Education’s policy, dating back to the early 1970s, of teaching non-English-speaking students in their native language for seven years or longer to build a foundation of academic skills before they are transitioned into an all-English curriculum.

The commission urged that the practice — which has proven effective in some districts but fallen short in others — be replaced with one that allowed more local flexibility, letting districts employ a variety of instructional techniques to meet their widely varying needs.

At a time when many individual districts face the challenge of educating children who speak a growing range of native languages — not just Spanish but Russian, Korean, Chinese, Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian and many others — and when most districts lack the staff and expertise to instruct them in those languages, the revised approach makes imminent sense. Many California parents of limited-English-speaking students are begging schools for more intensive English instruction for their children.

The state Board of Education has already given its blessing to the change, but for all practical purposes, the old framework has remained. For that reason, Assemblyman Brooks Firestone of Santa Barbara has proposed legislation, AB 2310, that would formally grant school districts the flexibility they need. The Assembly Education Committee is expected to approve the bill tomorrow, and it deserves support from the entire Legislature.

As with most state-mandated programs that have been around for 20 years, a bureaucracy and advocacy establishment has ossified around the existing native-language instruction framework. There’s always the danger that some districts will provide too little help to children who speak no English. But calling Firestone’s bill racist and an “attempt to eliminate non-English languages” from the California landscape, as that establishment has done, only polarizes the debate.

AB 2310 attempts to ensure that California’s disparate school districts can find better ways to help students speak, read and write fluent English by the time they graduate from high school — the most basic requirement for success in this society, and something that not enough of them are doing now. There are 1.2 million public schoolchildren in bilingual education classrooms, and more on the way; under the present system, an alarmingly low number — just 6 percent — become English proficient each year. Why anyone would defend a program with that rate of success is hard to fathom.

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