A year makes big difference

Last year, legislation to overhaul the state’s massive, expensive and widely criticized system of bilingual education cleared the state Senate with a strong bipartisan majority and began moving through the Assembly.

But when the bill reached the Assembly Appropriations Committee, it was placed in the legislative freezer by then-Speaker Cruz Bustamante, acting at the behest of the Assembly’s Latino caucus and bilingual education teachers.

Late in the year, Republicans moved to withdraw the measure from committee and force a full Assembly vote. But Democrats voted virtually unanimously to stall action, and the Legislature adjourned for the year without doing anything.

What a difference a year makes. In the aftermath of the Legislature’s inaction, a measure to virtually abolish bilingual education was qualified for the June primary ballot by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz. And a judge ruled that the state’s bilingual education requirement actually expired more than a decade ago.

On Monday, six weeks before voters will decide the fate of the Unz initiative, Democrats brought a mildly altered version of the long-stalled legislation to the Assembly floor and passed it. The vote was 50-27, with a handful of Republicans backing the measure.

Why the change of heart by Democrats? Despite the rationalizations offered by Democratic leaders, it clearly was because polls show that the Unz initiative is enjoying strong voter support. Thus, reforms that Latino leaders and other advocates of bilingual education found distasteful last year appear much more palatable this year.

The legislation would give local school districts wide discretion in designing programs for the estimated 1.4 million children — a quarter of all public school students — who have limited or no English proficiency. The Unz measure, meanwhile, would put those students into “sheltered” English immersion instruction.

The issue itself is highly emotional, the latest in a series of racially tinged political clashes in the state, and one that colors this year’s campaigns. But it also has other ramifications, both political and philosophical.

Democrats needed political cover, having killed the bipartisan reform bill last year. Monday’s vote gives them something to take back to their voters this year, especially if they publicly oppose the Unz measure.

Newly installed Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa needed a win, having stumbled badly on two earlier issues — school bonds and assault weapons control — and having been privately criticized by fellow Democrats for the failures. The speaker conducted an hours-long, closed-door Democratic caucus to carefully count his votes before risking the public roll call on such a high-profile issue.

Finally, the Legislature as a whole needed to demonstrate that it can act on a highly contentious issue — even if that action may have occurred too late to affect the outcome of the vote on the Unz measure, Proposition 227. Ever since Proposition 13 passed in 1978, the Legislature has ceded policy action to the initiative process and reacted to major issues, if at all, after the fact.

“The Legislature has dithered, and the people have gone to the initiative system,” Assemblyman Howard Wayne, D-San Diego, said during the floor debate. Added Villaraigosa, “Let the world know the Legislature is willing to act.”

Had Bustamante, Villaraigosa’s predecessor, not held up the reform measure last year, it would have been in place before Unz began gathering signatures for his measure. Acting now is more a symbolic gesture than meaningful and responsive legislation — especially since there’s no guarantee that Gov. Pete Wilson will sign the bill.

DAN WALTERS’ column appears daily, except Saturdays. E-mail: [email protected]; mail: P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, 95852; phone: (916) 321-1195; fax: (916) 444-7838.

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