Los Angeles Times

Friday, September 5, 1997

Panel Blocks Bilingual Education Compromise
Legislature: State initiative to curb policy is expected to benefit from action by Assembly committee.
By ERIC BAILEY, Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO--Throwing the door open for a statewide initiative to sharply curtail bilingual education in California, state lawmakers Thursday blocked a compromise measure designed to give schools more flexibility in teaching children who aren't fluent in English.
     In a strictly partisan vote, Democrats on the Assembly Appropriations Committee bottled up a bill by state Sen. Deirdre Alpert (D-Coronado) and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) that would free local school districts from the state's bilingual education requirements.
     The measure, held back on a 13-8 vote, would have allowed districts to fashion whatever approach they believe works best, ranging from teaching students in their native language to immersing them in classrooms dominated by English. It also would have required districts for the first time to measure the educational progress of the 1.3 million California students with limited English skills.
     With the bill now stuck in committee, Alpert and her supporters predicted that it will cut a swath for a looming spring ballot measure backed by former gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz and Orange County teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman that embraces English-only instruction.
     "The political reality is we're facing the Unz initiative, and this would have been a good opportunity for the Legislature to come up with a real solution rather than the one-size-fits-all that the initiative proposes," Alpert said. "This is a bad policy decision and a bad political decision."
     But Alpert's measure, which she and others viewed as the sort of middle-ground effort that would prove a useful political foil to the Unz initiative, drew stiff opposition from several former educators in the Assembly as well as the Legislature's Latino Caucus.
     Foes also included an odd pairing: backers of bilingual education, who suggest that the solution is expanding and improving current native-language programs, and English-only advocates who want to abolish the status quo.
     Bilingual backers say the bill would allow districts to simply stop teaching children in their native language. They argue that students fall behind in core subjects if they are required to learn math, science and history in a language they little understand.
     They also say that the measure doesn't make districts accountable enough for the performance of their programs and doesn't clearly dictate what would be done if a school's approach didn't work.
     "Everyone is aware of the initiative out there and the need to do the right thing for the students," said Don Trujillo of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "Hopefully, next year we can come right out of the gate with something."
     Unz and Matta Tuchman welcomed the measure's defeat, saying it didn't go far enough to end the state education establishment's love affair with bilingual education.
     They also suggested that it strengthens the prospects of their measure, which is halfway to the goal of 600,000 petition signatures to put it on the ballot next June. The initiative would require that all public school instruction be conducted in English unless a parent can prove that a child would learn faster through an alternative technique.
     "This means for the 10th year in a row, the Legislature has been deadlocked on this issue," Unz said. "It looks like the initiative process is the best route to achieving a solution."
     Unz also said, "There is a certain element of irony that some of these people who embrace bilingual education are so unwilling to accept change that the end result is a more fundamental change," a reference to the one offered by his ballot measure.
     Alpert said the specter of the initiative might be enough to get all parties behind the measure when it can be taken up again in January. Insiders also said she might attempt to amend the measure's language into another bill already on the Assembly floor and power it through the Legislature in the final days of the session, which ends next week.
     The bill marked the seventh attempt in the last 10 years to revamp the state's bilingual education regulations, which have been in a legal limbo since 1987, when a previous set of guidelines expired. Since then, the state Department of Education has required school districts to operate under rules that emphasize instruction in children's native languages.
     Some research shows that bilingual programs, in which students can stay as long as seven years before moving into all-English classes, prepare youngsters better academically. But other studies have found that many of those students never become fully fluent in English.
     Nearly 1 of every 5 California students qualifies for bilingual education, 77% of them in Spanish. But the state has never had a way to track their progress. California also faces a dearth of bilingual teachers, despite sustained recruitment efforts. That shortage grew by about 5,000 this past year and now stands at about 26,000 teachers.