Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, May 5, 1998

Legislators OK Alternative to Prop. 227
By CARL INGRAM, Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO--The Legislature's alternative to a June 2 ballot initiative that would virtually eliminate bilingual education in California public schools won narrow final passage Monday and was sent to Gov. Pete Wilson.
     The governor, who has acknowledged that he is "strongly leaning" toward supporting Proposition 227, refused to say whether he will sign the bill, but indicated that he was not pleased by its late arrival.
     "This comes at the last moment. I'm not going to prejudge it. I will judge it on its merits, but it is very, very late," Wilson told reporters.
     "It reminds me of the belated efforts made by the Legislature in 1978 to try to forestall passage of Proposition 13," Wilson said of the Legislature's eleventh-hour attempt to rewrite California's bilingual education law.
     Twenty years ago, as the popular property-tax-slashing Proposition 13 soared in opinion polls, lawmakers hastily crafted an alternative for the ballot. Proposition 13 crushed it and then sparked other tax-cutting revolts across the nation.
     Two weeks ago, the Assembly approved a heavily amended version of the Legislature's bilingual education reform bill after Latino Democrats abandoned their previous opposition and agreed to support a compromise. It offers school districts greater flexibility in crafting bilingual education programs than the ballot initiative provides.
     The Senate followed on Monday, sending the bill (SB 6) to Wilson on a 21-13 vote, the bare majority required for passage. Most Democrats were in favor and most Republicans were opposed.
     "This is not a last-minute attempt to defeat the Unz initiative," Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), the bill's author, told her Senate colleagues. "We should adopt this bill because it is good policy."
     The governor has 30 days after he receives the bill to make a decision, a deadline that will not arrive until after the June 2 election.
     If signed into law by Wilson, the effort would allow legislators to note that they had belatedly reached consensus on reforming bilingual education, and provide an alternative to the Unz initiative during the remainder of the campaign. The bill also would be the standard for bilingual education in California if Proposition 227 fails or is tied up in the courts.
     Proposition 227 campaign spokeswoman Sheri Annis said that even if Wilson signs the bill, it would have no effect on the election. "Most Californians see that this is a last-minute effort to try to justify the Legislature's inaction for the past decade," she said.
     The battle over the future of bilingual education has attracted nationwide attention. During his just-completed weekend visit to California, President Clinton warned that Proposition 227 would make matters worse for limited English speakers.
     Proposition 227 would all but abolish bilingual education in California schools. The initiative would allow as much as one year of instruction in an English-only immersion program. Under the current bilingual education system, some students spend years learning in their native languages before they transition to mainstream English classes.
     Under the initiative, however, parents could seek waivers to the one-year immersion program under limited circumstances.
     Backers of the initiative, which is sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, assert that the patchwork of bilingual education programs has failed to help limited English speakers become fluent or prepare them for jobs or college when they leave high school. About 1.4 million California students speak a native language other than English; about 30% of them are receiving formal bilingual education at any time.
     The Legislature's alternative, which first passed the Senate last year, would give school districts greater flexibility to design and operate bilingual programs keyed to the individual needs of their students.
     The Alpert bill would allow local educators to decide whether total immersion in English, instruction in a student's primary language or something in between works best.
     But the bill also requires districts to measure and demonstrate that students are becoming fluent in English and are meeting district academic standards.
     Critics contend that Proposition 227 contains no accountability standards or any way to assess whether a student is becoming proficient in English or other subjects.
     As a magnet for immigrants, California was a pioneer in creating bilingual education for English learners in the 1970s. Its specific state-mandated guidelines expired a decade ago and have not been renewed, leaving an often fragmented and uneven mix of programs.
     Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Legislature's Latino caucus who opposed the bill in the Senate last year, said Monday that he reluctantly changed his mind because of Proposition 227.
     "It may not run off the Unz initiative," Polanco said of the bill approved Monday. "But I'll tell you, the Unz initiative will do more damage to the [children] in the long run."
     But Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside), a foe of bilingual education, praised the Unz plan as the "best solution" and charged that the Alpert bill "preserves much of the status quo."