San Jose Mercury News

Tuesday, May 19, 1998

Wilson Is Too Little, Too Late on Bilingual Education

CALL it a profile in poll-reading. On Monday, Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a sensible bilingual education reform bill, which provided the only alternative to Proposition 227. Then he endorsed Proposition 227, which has been doing very, very well without him.

The veto killed the bipartisan Alpert bill, which would have let school districts decide how to teach students who aren't fluent in English -- as long as students made progress on state tests. By contrast, Proposition 227 mandates short-term English immersion, replacing the old bilingual education mandate.

Wilson called the bill ``too little and much too late,'' noting that Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, has been trying for four years to pass a bilingual reform bill. It took the threat of 227 to break the deadlock.

He's right in one sense. It's almost certainly too late to derail Proposition 227, which would have superseded the bill.

But the Alpert bill wasn't too little. For the first time, it proposed to evaluate how well students with limited English skills were learning English and other subjects through annual tests. Districts could teach in English or in students' native language, if students showed progress toward the goal of joining a mainstream class in three years. Districts could have been required to redesign or change programs that didn't lead to student success.

``Bilingual education in California has been a serious failure,'' Wilson wrote in his veto message.

The Alpert bill would have made it possible to examine the evidence, by requiring achievement data linked to the method of instruction. It would have placed the focus where it belongs -- on student achievement.

Gov. Wilson didn't lead the charge to pass the Alpert bill in previous years, as students were failing to achieve English and academic proficiency. He did too little then, and it's too late now for him to pose as the foe of bilingual education or the friend of English learners.