San Diego Union-Tribune

Wednesday, April 29, 1998

A Reasonable Solution: Leave Bilingual Education to School Districts

It's encouraging that the Assembly has approved, however belatedly, a measure by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, to give school districts greater flexibility in running their bilingual education programs. If the Senate concurs, as seems likely since it has passed a similar bill, the legislation will be sent to Gov. Pete Wilson.

But whether Wilson signs the measure will be academic if California voters approve a statewide ballot initiative that would essentially mandate how all students of limited English proficiency (LEP) will be taught.

Proposition 227, sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, is quite inflexible in its requirement that nearly all LEP students be placed in "sheltered English immersion" programs. The upshot of this rigid requirement would be to prevent school districts with successful bilingual programs from doing what's best for their students.

Alpert's bill is preferable to the Unz approach, because it would give districts the latitude to do what works. That kind of flexibility is crucial in helping California's 1.4 million LEP students make a smooth and timely transition to English. But this more-reasoned strategy may be moot, considering the political gamesmanship over bilingual education by lawmakers of both parties, which has tied up the bill for the last three years.

Last year, for instance, Alpert's proposal appeared to be cleared for takeoff when it sailed through the Senate, only to be jammed up in the Assembly by the Latino caucus. Had the Legislature acted then or during the two previous years, Unz might never have launched his bilingual initiative.

The Alpert bill would give school districts the freedom to experiment with differing teaching strategies aimed at bringing LEP kids up to speed. But it would hold districts strictly accountable for moving these students into regular classes in a timely manner. Districts that failed to do so would be required to revise their programs.

Under Alpert's proposal, dissatisfied parents would be permitted to withdraw their children from bilingual education programs at any time. This approach flows from the sensible premise that parents know what is best for their children. The Unz measure, while giving parents limited discretion, would essentially put Sacramento back in charge of language instruction. Like most blunt instruments, this could prove cumbersome and costly.

According to the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst, Proposition 227 could cause many schools to incur large expenses. That's because LEP students who are unable to learn English in the prescribed 180-day school year would require additional assistance, particularly if they did not keep pace with their classmates.

The Alpert bill allows parents, along with school districts, to decide what is the best way to give LEP students a chance to succeed in the classroom. It deserves prompt passage and Gov. Wilson's signature.