San Jose Mercury News

Monday, March 16, 1998

Mother Tongue-Tied

California's law mandating bilingual education expired in 1987. So it's not the law anymore, and school districts can't be required to obey it.

That is the common-sense conclusion of a Sacramento judge, who ruled recently that school districts don't need a state waiver to teach students in English, rather than their native language. There's no law to waive.

In response, the California Board of Education voted unanimously last week that local districts may decide how best to educate students with limited English skills, using any method that develops English fluency "effectively and efficiently." Bilingual education remains an option, but not the preferred option.

"Local school districts will now have the flexibility they need to provide the best English language instruction to their students," Board President Yvonne W. Larsen said in a statement.

Until last week, the debate over bilingual education has focused mainly on the June ballot measure sponsored by software entrepreneur Ron Unz. Proposition 227 would eliminate most bilingual education programs and substitute "structured English immersion" (classes designed for English language learners), with most students moving to mainstream classes in one year. Parents who prefer bilingual education, or other methods, would have to apply for a waiver, citing their child's special needs.

"Preserve local control" is the rallying cry of opponents of the Unz initiative. But they are the same people who now oppose the state board's restoration of local control. Superior Court Judge Ronald B. Robie ruled that native-language instruction may be required "when necessary" to meet students' needs. The bilingual defenders argue that the court ruling changes nothing, since they believe native-language instruction is always "necessary" for children who aren't fluent in English.

In fact, the state badly needs a sensible policy for educating these students. But what it needs to do is monitor how well they're actually learning English, instead of monitoring how they're taught.

The Legislature has failed to act for 11 years, allowing education officials to continue to enforce the expired law, which required districts to offer native-language instruction when it was feasible.

Of 1.4 million "limited English proficient" students, about 30 percent -- mostly Spanish-speaking elementary students -- now are in bilingual education classes taught primarily in their native language. Another 20 percent receive some native-language tutoring from an aide. The rest are in mainstream classes with extra tutoring in English, or in "structured" or "sheltered" English immersion classes designed for limited-English students.

About 20 percent receive no special help. Known as "sink or swim," that method is a violation of federal law, which requires that limited-English students get the help they need to receive an equal education. It doesn't specify how they should be taught, however.

The Legislature could give Californians an alternative to Proposition 227 by passing SB 6 by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado. It pairs local control with accountability: Students would take a state test measuring English fluency and mastery of academic subjects. The state could intervene only if students weren't making adequate progress.

The Latino Caucus has blocked passage of this bill for two years running, and liberal Democrats are still demanding that SB 6 be amended to require native-language instruction, once again eliminating local control. The bill's chances don't look very bright.

At its April meeting, the board of education will adopt new policies to monitor how programs for limited-English students are meeting students' needs. The board could try to enforce the accountability part of SB 6 as policy. But if the board can't enforce a law that's gone out of existence, it's going to have trouble enforcing a law that never passed.

That will leave voters with a choice between Proposition 227 and the status quo, which bilingual education advocates will defend to the death. If there's no alternative to 227, death will come on Tuesday, June 2.