Fresno Bee

Friday, March 13, 1998

State Puts an End to Bilingual Mandate

To David Francis, a Visalia educator, the decision Thursday to give school districts greater control over how they teach bilingual education just doesn't make sense.

Francis was reacting to the state Board of Education's move to rescind a decades-old policy that required school districts to teach limited English-speaking students in their own language.

Other educators in the Valley, which has a large bilingual student population, also questioned the decision. But it was applauded by some conservative groups and supporters of a June ballot measure that would significantly change bilingual education.

Francis oversees the Visalia Unified School District's bilingual program. He worries that school districts could use Thursday's decision as an excuse to stop providing any kind of bilingual education.

"Some districts may argue that they don't have the resources or they don't have the staff or that they don't believe in it," Francis said.

The move came in response to a petition filed with the board by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation.

The foundation asked the board Feb. 17 to withdraw all written policies that led districts to believe primary-language instruction is required for "limited-English proficient" students.

The foundation argued that because the state's bilingual education law expired in 1987, the board was acting beyond the scope of the law when it required districts to obtain permission for English-only programs.

"This puts the wheels in motion to set a new direction for meeting the needs of English-language learners," said Bill Lucia, the board's executive director.

The move also was praised by advocates of a June ballot measure called Proposition 227. The initiative would require students to be taught "overwhelmingly" in English.

"It is encouraging for the campaign because it confirms what we've been saying all along - that it's absurd that a law that expired 11 years ago continues to be mandated throughout the state," spokeswoman Sheri Annis said.

But Rose Patron, head of Fresno Unified School District's bilingual education program, argued that the state never made teaching a student in his or her own language mandatory.

"What the law says is that students should have equal access to the core curriculum, and that their primary language should be used when necessary," Patron said. "And that is what we are doing. We are providing it when necessary."

At Fresno Unified, at least one-third of the district's 78,000 students are considered limited English speaking. Nearly 100 languages are spoken.

Providing students with instruction in their own language would be impossible, Patron said.

But the state's decision probably won't affect Fresno Unified. The district is operating under a federal mandate to do a better job of teaching limited-English-speaking children. That started in 1995; the district will be monitored until 1999.

The mandate calls for the district to have an adequate staff, effective curriculum, proper bilingual materials and a way to measure how well students are learning.

Francis said Visalia is solidly behind its bilingual program and expects no changes.

Out of a total district enrollment of 24,000, 23 percent are limited-English speakers.

"Anyone who knows anything about language acquisition as it relates to academic instruction understands that there should be a proper mix of primary language and English," Francis said. "That is how children learn best. Those in our district and my staff believe very strongly in that."

At Madera Unified, Kathy Lopes, director of state and federal projects, said she didn't know enough about the state board's actions to comment.

But she did say that Madera has heeded the call to improve its bilingual programs.

Beginning next fall, the district hopes to trim the number of years students stay in bilingual classes from an average of five to three.

Thirty-five percent of its 5,000 students are limited English speaking.

"We are looking at doing some of our own local control," Lopes said.

In addition to the foundation's challenge, a ruling by a Sacramento judge played a role in the state board's move.

The ruling was issued last week in a separate court case. In that case, Spanish-speaking parents sought to require the Orange Unified School District to continue primary-language instruction for 1,400 first- through third-graders.

Parents and Hispanic bilingual education advocates argued that children were being denied equal education opportunities and that the state Board of Education was wrong to allow the Orange County district to conduct an English-only program.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald B. Robie ruled Friday that the board was acting "contrary to law" in issuing any such waivers.

Robie said primary-language instruction is required "when necessary" to meet the educational needs of a student. But he said the board had no authority to require districts to offer any specific type of program for students who speak little or no English.

The Department of Education, which audits school districts for compliance with bilingual-education policies, disagreed with the board's interpretation of the court ruling.

Allan H. Keown, deputy general counsel to the department, said the board was on shaky legal ground if it agreed with the Pacific Legal Foundation petition, calling it a "gross mischaracterization" of the law.

But the board's own lawyer, Rea Belisle, said Robie's ruling left little choice.

"I really resent being put in this position," board member Kathryn Dronenburg said. At the same time, she said, "I don't see how the court ruling could be any clearer."

Board member Janet Nicholas made the motion to rescind the policy and direct staff members to draft a policy giving more control to local boards.

"It's clear to me the provisions of the state bilingual education act are inoperative and the principles governing this state are federal law," she said.