Last week’s decision by the state Board of Education to give local school districts more flexibility in educating students who speak limited English is likely to be more significant as political symbol than as pedagogical substance. Either way, however, it’s a welcome stay against the confusion into which bilingual policy has been sinking more deeply with each passing day.

Once it’s written into a formal policy statement next month, the board decision will allow local districts to use whatever means they believe best for students who come to school speaking little or no English — from bilingual education to English immersion, to sink-or-swim mainstream classes — provided only that they don’t violate federal law.

In terms of practical effects in the classroom, that may not make all that much immediate difference. Despite the often-unimpressive results of bilingual education, most large California school districts have embraced native language instruction for limited-English-proficient (LEP) students, even where parents vehemently opposed it.

In Los Angeles two years ago, parents, many of them poor Latino garment workers, staged a school boycott to get their children out of bilingual education. After five years in the program, some were still illiterate in English. At the same time, because trained bilingual teachers and other resources are in short supply, about 70 percent of California’s 1.4 million LEP students are in immersion, in ESL (English as a second language) classes or in the regular school program — with equally unimpressive results. The board decision is therefore not likely to have much immediate effect on either group.

But the decision clarifies an almost hopelessly confused legal situation. After a long battle, the Legislature in 1986 allowed the state law that mandated bilingual education to expire, but state Board of Education and state Department of Education guidelines and advisories more or less continued the policy unchanged. Last month, in a ruling pointing to that confusion, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald Robie concluded that there was no legal basis either for requiring bilingual education, except “where necessary” (presumably in the judgment of the district), or for state board waivers from that requirement. Last week’s state board action in effect officially accepted Robie’s ruling.

What may be even more important about the board decision, however, is its potential impact on Proposition 227, the English for the Children Initiative backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, which is on the June ballot and which would severely curtail bilingual education in California. All polls indicate that more than 65 percent of Californians support it. But because the polls also show the same voters strongly supporting local control in choosing educational strategies, it’s on that issue that opponents of Proposition 227 are taking their stand.

And local control, of course, is precisely what the state board decision now seems to mandate for California’s bilingual education decisions. Shortly after the board ‘s unanimous vote last week, Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for the Unz campaign, declared, correctly, that the change will have no effect on districts with “entrenched bilingual programs.”

But for Unz, a more basic worry now has to arise from the question of whether, quite paradoxically, the board’s action strengthens the hand of the opponents of Proposition 227. They can now declare the problem solved. Henceforth, state policy will require decisions to be made at the district level. That’s at least one step closer to making them case by case, depending on the needs and circumstances of the individual child.

And that, of course, is where reason and research suggest the decision should rest. While there is no end of research, most of it highly politicized, much of it worthless, a committee created by the National Research Council that reviewed the literature last year concluded that, done properly, native language instruction can be “helpful.” At the same time, it cautioned against any across-the-board generalizations. “Rather than choosing a one-size-fits-all program,” said Kenji Hakuta, the Stanford professor who chaired the NRC panel, “the key issue should be identifying those components, backed by solid research findings, that will work in [a specific situation.]”

The state board resolution, introduced by Janet Nicholas, who has quickly become one of the board’s strongest and most thoughtful voices, hardly guarantees anything. Where districts once simply neglected children who spoke little or no English, they now tend to patronize them with feel-good programs that have no instructional beef in any language. But in specifying that state policy be designed to “permit school districts the flexibility authorized under federal law in designing and implementing programs for English learners,” the decision does seem to bring the state closer to the track that the NRC panel suggests.

A lot more needs to be done. Almost certainly, the state ought to adopt clear guidelines of who should not be included. Children who speak only Korean or Chinese should not be placed in bilingual Spanish classes, as they often have been in the past; children who speak English better than their primary language ought not be stuck in bilingual education, even if they can’t read English at grade level. Ultimately, it may also be necessary to provide fiscal incentives — and disincentives — to encourage districts to move students into mainstream classes as quickly as possible.

That may not always be possible in three years — and it will rarely be possible within one year, which is what the Unz initiative regards as normative. But given the dismal academic performance of many LEP students in California — Latino students in particular — there’s no doubt that someone needs to stoke the fires of urgency. If the board’s action is taken as one sign of that, it will be well worth the effort.

PETER SCHRAG’s column appears in The Bee on Wednesday. He can be reached by fax at 321-1996; or by letter at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779.

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