Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, May 6, 1998

Sensible Bilingual Reform

Gov. Pete Wilson is right that the bilingual education reform law just enacted by the Legislature is a "baby step" toward reform and that it lacks tough enforcement. But Wilson should sign it because it heads in the right direction, giving school districts greater flexibility in how they teach children who speak little or no English, requiring regular testing to measure progress and mandating change in the face of continued failure.
     The measure, SB 6, sponsored by state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), would require each school district to provide daily English language instruction, to use fully qualified teachers in these classes and try to provide support in the child's primary language. It's hard to believe that these minimal standards are not already on the books, but they're not. The bill would require regular testing of language and academic abilities. Revisions would be required after two years if bilingual students performed below the district average.
     After four years of poor results, major program changes would be called for. Taken together, these standards should prevent children from being trapped in ineffective bilingual programs for as many as seven years, emerging still not academically fluent in English--a ridiculously frequent occurrence in Los Angeles schools.
     The Alpert bill should become law even though Wilson is leaning toward endorsing Proposition 227, the ballot initiative that would limit bilingual education to one year of English immersion instruction unless parents get waivers for their children. If the initiative passes on June 2, it may face legal challenges. That prospect should motivate the governor to sign SB 6 so that reform will start sooner rather than later.
     Bilingual education can work, as demonstrated in the Calexico School District along the Mexican border. In those schools, predominantly Spanish-speaking and poor children become proficient in English by the fourth grade, 90% finish high school and half go on to college. There are fine results in many bilingual programs on individual campuses. But success, unfortunately, is the exception rather than the rule.
     As Wilson has indicated, the Alpert legislation does not go far enough. Tougher consequences, including state intervention, are needed for districts that fail. And no school district should be allowed to continue the bilingual status quo without proof that it works.
     The Legislature should have reformed bilingual education years ago, but failed to act responsibly until after the voter initiative had qualified for the ballot. Still, the Alpert bill provides on all counts a better system than the state has now. Wilson should sign it, no matter what he decides about Proposition 227.