San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, April 23, 1998

A Good Bilingual Alternative

Assembly approval of a bilingual reform bill is better late than never.

Last year, the Latino caucus turned a deaf ear to politicians who warned that if the state Legislature failed to come up with substantive changes to current bilingual education, voters unhappy with the program would find it easy to support businessman Ron Unz' anti-bilingual initiative.

Since then, the Unz initiative, which effectively dismantles bilingual education in favor of a one-year immersion course in English, has qualified for the June 2 ballot as Proposition 227. Polls show that voters overwhelmingly support the measure.

It should have been easier to persuade the bilingual advocates in the Assembly that they were hurting their own cause by refusing to support a bilingual education reform bill, SB 6, by Senator Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Olivos. That measure would leave it to local school districts to decide how to best educate limited English-speaking students, but would require regular evidence of academic and language progress.

The Unz initiative has no such requirement. If students flail and sink under the immersion plan, schools have no obligation -- and in fact are precluded from -- revising or dumping the program. Although the Assembly vote comes just six weeks before the June election, swift action by the state Senate on amendments and a signature from Governor Wilson would provide voters a far superior alternative to Proposition 227.

Wilson should follow the lead of his state Board of Education, which says local school districts should decide bilingual policy.

The Unz initiative takes a meat-ax, ``one- size-fits-all'' approach to a complicated issue that affects 1.3 million California schoolchildren. The Alpert-Firestone bill gives districts flexibility, while requiring evidence that what they are doing works.