Sacramento Comes Up Short

Bill to allow communities more control over bilingual education stalls despite legislative rush

THE legislative year that closed last month was one of the most productive of the decade, with tax relief, extension of class-size reduction, health coverage for poor children, trial court funding and a cut in higher education fees among its many accomplishments.

But as productive as the session was, there were missed opportunities too, and meaningful reform of our bilingual education system again eluded us.

During the last days of the session, an Assembly committee stalled an important piece of legislation designed to overhaul our bilingual education system. This bill, authored by Senator Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos, and supported by the California PTA, would have freed up school districts from the state’s bilingual education requirements and allowed them to design their own methods for making all children English proficient as fast as possible.

Under SB 6, schools could make their own decisions whether immersion in English or some level of instruction in a student’s native language best achieved the goals of learning and English proficiency. This decision would be made at a local level in consultation with a district’s advisory committee, and mindful of the unique ethnic composition of a particular school district, rather than a state level one-size-fits-all approach.

What’s more, SB 6 would hold school districts accountable. It would require the districts to measure the learning skills of those children who are not fluent in English and determine the success or failure of their teaching methods. Another provision of the bill would require parental notification of the assessment results and would provide the opportunity for parents to withdraw their child from the program if they desire, and provided it would not violate any desegregation plan.

If a school fails to achieve greater English proficiency with the method it chooses, the legislation would require that the school district modify its teaching program in a manner that satisfies the state Board of Education. Such a failure could, or course, result in an immediate reinstatement of the statewide bilingual education requirements.

It is difficult to demonstrate empirically whether one teaching method or another has proved more successful in moving kids into English. Although there is considerable literature supporting bilingual education, it runs up against an almost ubiquitous body of anecdotal evidence that is the result of our own varied immigrant experiences.

How many among us do not have a father, grandmother or great-uncle who came to this country not speaking a word of English and were taught, and taught well, by that most uncompromising of teachers – necessity?

I joined colleagues Alpert and Firestone as a co-author of SB 6, not because I am convinced that native-language instruction is without benefit, but because I believe that we must remain more focused on results than on method. There is a tendency in all areas of government to become wedded to a particular approach to a problem; institutional bureaucracies multiply and attempt to perpetuate themselves, even when today’s challenges have outgrown yesterday’s solutions.

Almost one out of every five students in California public schools are limited-English proficient. Such students are the fastest-growing portion of the student population, and have more than doubled in the last 10 years.

The difficulties posed by classrooms that now must educate children from ethnic groups who speak more than 50 languages are immense. Under these dramatically different circumstances, we cannot shrink from a re-examination of current teaching methods. As Lincoln once said, ”The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. . . . As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”

The failure of the Legislature to think anew and act anew, may have dire consequences. The government’s failure to respond to growing problems of illegal immigration prompted passage of Proposition 187. Similar unwillingness to address deficiencies in our approach to affirmative action resulted in Proposition 209. The backers of a new initiative to ban all bilingual education are not the least bit coy over their delight at the setback to SB 6.

But they are the only ones who should be applauding the defeat of a good bill.

EDITOR-NOTE: State Sen. Adam B. Schiff represents Pasadena, Glendale, Burbank and the surrounding communities. A former Assistant United States Attorney, he was elected to the state Senate in November 1996.

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