Saturday, December 13, 1997
California voters are saying to anyone who'll listen: We want immigrant children in the public schools to learn English as quickly as possible. Is the Legislature listening?
The latest Field Poll found that nearly 70 percent of voters favor a proposed June ballot initiative that would largely replace public school bilingual education programs with one-year English immersion programs. Support for the initiative, called "English for the Children," was strong across all ethnic groups, with 66 percent of Latino voters saying they favor it. Coming on the heels of a Los Angeles Times poll that showed even stronger support for the initiative, this latest survey offers another stark warning: The electorate is concerned enough about the schools' collective failure to efficiently move enough non-English speakers into mainstream classrooms that it looks ready, at least initially, to embrace a radical, one-size-fits all solution to a problem that requires greater flexibility and deliberation.
But within that message lay a very interesting contradiction. While a sizable majority said they favored "English for the Children," which would set nearly in stone a strict policy for the whole state, 55 percent also said they preferred decisions about bilingual education approaches to be made by school boards at the local level.
Last summer, the Assembly Democrats squandered a chance to accommodate that desire for local control when they blocked a sensible bill -- Sen. Deirdre Alpert's SB 6 -- that sought more modest reform of bilingual education policies while giving districts the flexibility to pursue a broader array of teaching strategies for limited English speakers.
A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante says he will allow SB 6 to be revived in January. It should never have been allowed to stall in the first place, and its passage even now may do little to deter support for the initiative. The Legislature's repeated inability over the last decade to address the bilingual education problem, even at its edges, has created fertile ground for a far more radical approach.