Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

A Bilingual Bill at Last

The members of the California Legislature are masters of too little too late. With an English-only ballot initiative just weeks from a public vote, lawmakers who had dithered about bilingual education for a decade finally approved a moderate reform measure. There is little chance that the ballot measure, which would in effect do away with bilingual education, will be affected by the measure passed Monday by the Legislature. Despite all that, the bill, by state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), deserves the governor's signature.
     Alpert's SB 6 would set a realistic target of moving children into regular English-only classes within three years. Gov. Pete Wilson should sign this bill even though he has been justifiably impatient with the Legislature's political foot-dragging on this emotional issue. Also impatient are parents of the many limited-English children who have attended California's public schools for years without learning to read and write in English.
     Bilingual reform passed this time around with the help of new Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), who pushed the bill forward in his first months in the post. His predecessor, Cruz Bustamante, stalled the bill last year under pressure from the legislative Latino Caucus, which feared the political risks of change even as anti-bilingual forces gathered steam for their ballot proposition. The political climate has changed sharply since then with the surging campaign for Proposition 227, which would require almost all public school instruction to be in English.
     The Alpert bill would encourage flexibility and experimentation and require testing and reporting of results in two years. If students failed to make progress in English proficiency and core academic subjects, school districts would be required to revise their bilingual instruction. Laggard districts might look to Calexico's successful bilingual program or to Westminster and some other Orange County districts, which will be experimenting with new systems as long as testing shows students are not falling behind. The state board no longer requires waivers to try something new, but under SB6 continued failure would trigger intervention, including expert help, by the State Board of Education.
     A key provision of the bill would require daily English instruction by credentialed teachers and, when possible, support from a trained aide who speaks the student's primary language.
     The Alpert bill would improve bilingual education for the nearly 25% of California public school students who need help learning English. The bill is mild, educationally sound and long overdue.