Education Week

Wednesday, June 17, 1998

Will Calif.'s Bellwether Reputation Ring True?

California's vote this month to virtually eliminate bilingual education is on the lips of educators and policymakers in other states with large immigrant populations. But whether that talk translates into action to retool such education remains to be seen.

It was clear last week that policymakers across the country are keeping close tabs on California to see how the new law plays out. Some observers expect similar measures to be filed in state legislatures or to show up on other state ballots. Whether those measures would galvanize public support the way the California initiative did is less clear.

"I wouldn't be surprised if people elsewhere file legislation. But there's a huge difference between proposing something and having it get somewhere," said Patricia Sullivan, the director for education legislation at the National Governors' Association in Washington.

Some predict states and districts will steer away from California's approach and try to mend, not end, their bilingual programs.

"People always look to see what California is doing. And, in some instances, they are a bellwether state," said Brenda Welburn, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education in Alexandria, Va. "I'm not sure they are in this case."

On June 2, an estimated 61 percent of Californians who voted cast ballots for Proposition 227, which calls for limited-English-proficient students to be taught in an English-immersion program--usually for no more than one year--before moving into mainstream classes. Rather than teach students only in English, in bilingual education, students typically learn partly through their native languages while they transition to English.

The day after voters went to the polls, civil rights groups went to court to challenge the measure. They argue that the law violates federal civil rights laws and the U.S. Constitution. A preliminary-injunction hearing is set for July 15 in federal district court in San Francisco. In the meantime, students, their families, and schools are in limbo, awaiting guidance from the state and the courts.

At least one school system outside California was counting the passage of Proposition 227 as an opportunity. Recruiters from the 54,500-student Arlington, Texas, district were scheduled to hit Southern California this week in search of bilingual teachers who want a "friendlier" work climate, district spokeswoman Charlene Robertson said.

Need To Be 'Responsive'
The debate over bilingual education is not new, though the California vote may move the issue to the front burner. Various state efforts to move students into the English mainstream more quickly or provide local districts more flexibility in how they teach LEP students have surfaced over the past year.

"California is a wake-up call that other states have to be more responsive to people's concerns about programs in their own states," said Jorge Amselle, a spokesman for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington think tank that advocates greater assimilation of immigrants and criticizes bilingual education for slowing the process.

With a new crop of state legislators likely to be in place after the fall elections, many of them working under term limits, states could be emboldened to take action on the highly charged issue, said Julie Bell, the education director for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some Change Likely
Policymakers in states such as Arizona, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington are looking to retool bilingual education.

Washington state Rep. Peggy Johnson, a Republican who heads the House education committee, said she expects to see changes.

In New York City, a moderate "cleanup" of bilingual education will likely show up on the fall agenda, said Judith Rizzo, the deputy chancellor for the nation's largest school system. Roughly 18 percent of the 1.1 million students there have limited proficiency in English. While city officials had long planned to tackle bilingual education reform, Ms. Rizzo said, California's action means the district will take extra care to let the public know the issue is not being ignored in New York.

In Massachusetts, where a bill to overhaul bilingual education has been stalled for a year, many see an atmosphere ripe for change. But at least one legislator seems less than keen to copy California's approach.

"My boss is interested in looking closely at the issue. But he's not interested in the California model--it's too much," said an aide to Sen. Robert A. Antonioni, a Democrat who is a co-chairman of the legislature's joint education panel.

In the U.S. Congress, a plan is being considered that would dramatically shift federal bilingual education policy.

'Wings' Beyond California?
As states grapple with the issue, it quickly becomes clear that each has its own political and cultural landscape that will affect what changes--if any--come about.

And bilingual programs vary dramatically in each state. Officials in Texas and Florida, for example, say their LEP students generally are taught with more English, and more accountability checks, than they would be in many California schools.

Texas is home to half the nation's elected Latino officials and has about 480,000 LEP students, second only to California.

"Our programs aren't perfect; we're looking at changes. But I don't see any great revolution in our bilingual education program as a result of the California vote," said Darla Marburger, an aide to the Texas Senate education panel.

In Florida, the Miami-Dade County district is pushing for all children to be able to read, write, and speak two languages. And a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate--branded a long-shot by the Florida media--issued a news release the day of the California primary election pledging to move the battle against bilingual education to Florida as part of his "Make America One Again" plan.

"There are always people who want to duplicate what California does," said Marcelo Gaete, the director of constituent services in Los Angeles for the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials. "The question is, what kind of wings will those efforts have? And we don't know yet if this has wings in other places."