Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, January 27, 1998

EDITORIAL
A Better Bilingual Alternative

Time is running out for the California Legislature to fix the problems of bilingual education. In June, voters will take a position on the Unz initiative, the so-called "English for the Children" state ballot measure, which would end most forms of instruction in any language other than English in California's public schools.
     A worthy alternative is a bill sponsored by state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) that would give local school districts greater flexibility in how to teach non-English-speaking children. Alpert's bill provides the best opportunity for the Legislature to prove it can mandate reform before the voters tackle the job.
     In return for new flexibility, the Alpert bill, SB 6, would hold school districts accountable for results. Non-English-speaking students would have to demonstrate achievement in English and in core academic subjects every two years. If they failed, the school district would be required to find a method that worked.
     Under the current system, which encourages initial instruction in a student's first language, districts face no penalty for failure.
     SB 6 passed the Senate last June with strong bipartisan support but was stalled in the Assembly by Democrats, including Latino members, who feared a return to the days of sink-or-swim instruction, totally in English. The political equation has been changed by the ballot initiative promoted by businessman Ron Unz, which would eliminate most bilingual education altogether. As the June ballot looms, more Democrats are now willing to seek a compromise, while many Republicans are withdrawing their support for the Alpert bill, declaring that they prefer the "one-size-fits-all" state ballot measure.
     If the Unz measure passes, legal challenges are expected to delay implementation. Where would that leave our 1.4 million schoolchildren who are not fluent in English? The Alpert bill would allow more school districts to experiment to find what works best to prepare students to succeed in English. School districts cannot afford to dawdle, nor can the Legislature.