San Francisco Chronicle

Saturday, March 14, 1998

Bilingual: Not Optional

SO WHAT does the state Board of Education's 10-to-0 vote to overhaul California's bilingual education rules really mean? Is this the end of required bilingual education or the beginning of a new era of innovation?

There are at least two possible interpretations out of the order.

And the way this new policy is carried out will determine whether this ruling puts millions of students struggling with English in a sink-or-swim predicament or leads to fresh ideas for a well-intentioned and important program that has had decidedly mixed results.

The immediate effect of the vote is that school districts no longer will be required to obtain waivers from the state when they want to scrap native-language instruction in favor of more English-intensive methods.

The state board's vote could have disastrous results if local districts take it as a signal that they no longer have an obligation to address the needs of California's 1.4 million students classified as ``limited English proficient.'' The board members, all appointed by Governor Pete Wilson, in their resolution characterized the state's bilingual law as ``inoperative'' -- citing its 1987 expiration.

Their vote was at very least premature, given that an Orange County case involving the status of bilingual education is still pending in the courts. After all, the state's Education Code still explicitly requires that schools should provide ``equal opportunity for academic achievement including, when necessary, academic instruction through the primary language.''

One possible outcome of this state board's action is that it should focus atten tion on the willingness, even eagerness, of local districts to test new approaches to teaching children of immigrants. Some districts believe they can be most successful by allowing students to study math, science and other subjects in their native languages while they gradually learn English, while others believe their students and teachers are better equipped for a rapid language transition.

The timing is important because Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz has offered a one-size-fits-all approach to bilingual education. The Unz Initiative, on the June ballot, would force all students to learn English in one year, even though the evidence is clear that older students often take longer to grasp a new language.

Left unanswered in the state board's vote is how the state will make sure that students are not left foundering by districts that lack the will or the resources to assist non-English-speaking students.

A more thoughtful approach has been proposed by Senator Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, whose bill would attempt to blend local control with state accountability. Local school districts would be required to work with parent advisory groups to develop bilingual programs, and student achievement would be tracked. The state would have the ability to intervene when local bilingual programs were failing.

``We really need to have a variety of programs,'' Alpert said. ``The state's interest is in seeing that these children are educated, not in picking a particular program.'' California voters should know that there are alternatives to the Unz initiative, which would indiscriminately sweep out the good with the bad approaches.

This week's state board vote should be taken as a step toward finding the best way to improve bilingual education. The board, which revisits the subject in April, should be ready to follow up with policies that provide for accountability along with flexibility for the local districts.