San Diego Union-Tribune

Sunday, February 1, 1998

Do the Right Thing
Schools Need Flexible Bilingual Programs

Front-running state and local politicians are eagerly lining up behind the anti-bilingual education initiative, sponsored by entrepreneur Ron Unz. And polls show it to be a likely winner in June. But state Sen. Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, is taking a far more responsible approach to the problems that beset this controversial and troubled program.

Rather than dismantling bilingual instruction, as the Unz proposal virtually would do, Alpert wants to modify the program, which is designed to help 1.4 million students make a smooth transition to English.

Alpert is carrying a bill that would give school districts greater latitude in devising programs that best serve their kids. The Little Hoover Commission recommended a more flexible strategy along these lines several years ago. That sensible view is shared by many classroom instructors who worry about the dire consequences of pulling the plug on bilingual programs.

Alpert's measure has been approved by the Senate. Yet it is losing ground in the Assembly, where support among Republican lawmakers has faded ever since the Unz bandwagon began to gain traction in the polls.

In addition to gaining considerable political mileage by attacking bilingual programs that are widely unpopular, many GOP lawmakers contend Alpert's bill is going nowhere. They argue that if it is approved, it would be vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson. And even if it were signed into law, they maintain, it would be rendered moot by the passage of the Unz measure.

They may be right on both counts. But that doesn't make them right on the fundamental issue of whether a one-size-fits-all approach is best for kids who don't speak English.

Alpert's bill would provide more flexibility to school districts, while holding them strictly accountable for moving English-deficient kids forward in a timely manner. It would enable parents to withdraw their children from bilingual programs at any time. Most important, it would let school districts and parents make these decisions. It's the right thing to do.