Los Angeles Times
Monday, January 26, 1998
Bill to Fix Bilingual Education Pushed Before Unz Vote
Reform: Facing drive to virtually ban such instruction, leaders
back bill to give districts a freer hand in picking best way to teach pupils
who aren't fluent in English. Initiative co-sponsor Unz assails effort.
By ERIC BAILEY, NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writers
SACRAMENTO--Year in, year out, for a decade running, California lawmakers
have tried to produce new standards for bilingual education in the state's
They have always flunked. One bill was vetoed.
A dozen others never even made it that far.
Now, state legislators are at it again, taking
a last stab at reform before the California electorate does the job for
them. With an initiative to virtually dismantle bilingual education going
before voters in June, a state senator is scrambling to push through a
more moderate alternative designed to let school districts decide how best
to teach students not fluent in English.
The measure by Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado)
faces a stiff test in the Assembly, where it was bottled up in the final
days of last year's legislative session. Even if it passes, the bill could
be rendered moot if the ballot measure wins and survives legal challenge.
Republicans were bullish backers of Alpert's
bill in 1997. But this is an election year, and they have abandoned Alpert
and are moving in droves to support the anti-bilingual ballot measure,
launched by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron K. Unz and Orange County teacher
Gloria Matta Tuchman.
Democrats, including members of the powerful
Latino Caucus, have long been squeamish about tinkering with bilingual
education, which is woven through the fabric of California's public school
system despite continuing debate and controversy over its effectiveness.
But now, facing the Unz initiative, Democratic
reluctance is beginning to thaw. Many see Alpert's legislation as a good
political weapon in the coming war against the ballot measure.
If Alpert's bill is approved and signed into
law by Gov. Pete Wilson, who has yet to show his hand on either measure,
Unz's foes will argue that the new regulations governing bilingual education
are more flexible and preferable to the initiative, which they consider
a "one-size-fits-all" approach.
"There's a sense of urgency," said
Assemblyman Mike Honda (D-San Jose), an opponent of the Unz initiative
who is active in efforts to craft a legislative compromise. "A lot
of people want to point to something and say, 'See, we have something.
We don't need Unz.' "
Democrats are also saying they now consider
Alpert's bill worthwhile for California's 1.4 million schoolchildren not
fluent in English. That group constitutes about a quarter of the state's
students; the primary language of 4 out of 5 in the group is Spanish.
Alpert's bill would give school districts
a freer hand to be innovative and shape whatever approach they believe
works best, be it instruction in a student's native language, immersion
in classrooms where English is spoken most of the time or some other approach.
It also would hold districts to account for producing positive results.
Now, there are few penalties for districts that fail to move students quickly
into English fluency and ensure progress in other subjects.
Advocates of bilingual education aren't exactly
running to embrace the Alpert legislation, even with the Unz initiative
on the horizon.
"There aren't going to be any winners
in this," said Martha Zaragoza-Diaz, a lobbyist for the California
Assn. for Bilingual Education. "If we're going to give districts flexibility,
we need assurances that children are not only learning English, but also
math, science and writing at their grade level."
The Unz initiative, in contrast, would require
virtually all classroom instruction to be in English, with limited exceptions.
Children who are not fluent would get about a year of special help in English
and then move into mainstream classes.
Unz said his measure is filling the void
left by Sacramento.
"Last year I expected the Legislature
to finally do something, but they once again failed," he said. "That's
10 straight years! Now our initiative is going to a vote in four months.
It's a very foolish thing for them to come in at the last moment and say
they've agreed on something."
Unz said state lawmakers are simply making
a political move "motivated by nothing but the embarrassment that
they've been sitting on their hands for 10 straight years."
The California law governing bilingual education
expired in 1987, but state education officials have continued to carry
out its general intentions, prompted, in part, by rulings in federal civil
rights lawsuits that prohibit putting children in classrooms where they
cannot keep up because of language differences.
In California schools, that has translated
into about 30% of non-English-proficient children taking traditional bilingual
education classes, in which they are instructed in basic subjects in their
native language while they learn English.
The other 70% may receive help from bilingual
teaching aides, specially crafted lessons in various academic subjects
through so-called sheltered English, classes in English as a second language
or perhaps just a bilingual dictionary. Many get virtually no extra help
Part of the problem is a dearth of trained
bilingual teachers. By some estimates, the state needs as many as 26,900
new bilingual teachers to fill its needs. There now are about 15,000. Alpert's
bill would not rectify that situation.
Meanwhile, the State Board of Education has
adjusted the regulations, allowing districts to apply for waivers from
the bilingual rules. Four districts in the state--all in Orange County--have
received waivers, and the Santa Barbara district plans to seek one.
As state educators have tinkered with the
rules, California lawmakers have repeatedly proved powerless to push through
Last year, Alpert's bill (SB 6) appeared
headed for approval until it was waylaid in an Assembly fiscal committee
at the behest of Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno). Members of the Assembly
Latino Caucus, several lawmakers who are former educators and advocates
of bilingual education expressed concern that the bill did not have strong
enough safeguards. They said some students would be left to sink academically
in classes in which they couldn't keep up with instruction in English.
Over the years, Alpert's bill and similar
efforts have failed to win over many Latino lawmakers, who see bilingual
education as an emotional issue. As children, some were forced into sink-or-swim
situations in which they had little help learning English.
"I remember sitting in my fifth-grade
classroom and not knowing what was going on," recalled Assemblywoman
Martha M. Escutia (D-Bell), who believes that the Unz initiative is simply
a smoke screen for the English-only movement. "Why do we make it difficult
like that for kids?"
This year, Alpert is counting on Democrats
like Escutia to come through. Bustamante also is now eager to see a bill
to counter Unz's measure.
"I am hopeful we can put out a moderate
brand of bilingual education," Bustamante said. "I don't know
that it would derail the Unz initiative, but at least we'd be putting out
something that's good public policy, not some patronizing product meant
only as a wedge issue during an election."
But it may be too late. Without Republican
votes--and only a couple are seriously considering Alpert's bill--the chances
of the governor signing the legislation are clouded. And even if it becomes
law, the bill probably won't make a dent in the Unz initiative.
"I think we missed our window of opportunity
last year," Alpert said. "Maybe it was too late even then. It
has just taken the Legislature so long."