Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, January 27, 1998
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
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.