Sacramento Bee

July 27, 1997

Bilingual plan spurs debate
By JON MATTHEWS, Bee Capitol Bureau

While legislators debate the future of the 1.3 million California schoolchildren with limited English skills, Juan Torres doesn't have to consult a sea of statistics for his point of view.

Born to a Spanish-speaking family, Torres attended a bilingual education program in the Long Beach public schools. He was taught key subjects in Spanish through second grade and only then began the transition to English-only classrooms.

"Without that instruction (in Spanish), I think I would have been struggling throughout elementary school to learn how to read and write," Torres said.

Today, Torres' academic success is proven: At 23, he is now a Loyola Marymount University graduate who is continuing his studies as an associate in the state Senate's graduate fellowship program. But as Torres goes about his daily work in the Capitol, legislators remain sharply divided on what changes should be made in state policies governing how such "English-learner" students are initially taught.

Many lawmakers involved in the bilingual debate agree that something needs to be done: The number of English learners has skyrocketed and it is estimated that about one-fifth of them receive no special instructional services at all. Dozens of different first languages are involved, although about 77 percent of the students speak Spanish. There is also a shortage of bilingual teachers, and much of state law governing bilingual education expired a decade ago.

Many legislators also agree that the goal of schools should be to teach students solid English skills as quickly as possible.

But a key sticking point is to what extent schools should be required to teach students in their first language until they become proficient in English, versus other options such as fast "immersion" in English-language classrooms.

In June, the state Senate approved a sweeping proposal to overhaul bilingual education, a plan its backers say would give school districts the freedom to design their own programs for English learners while at the same time holding districts accountable for the students' success.

"This is about all children having the same opportunity for academic success," said Sen. Deirdre Alpert, D-Cornado, the author of the plan.

But the bill, SB 6, now pending before an Assembly committee, has faced strong resistance from many Latino legislators, bilingual educators and others. They worry that, among other things, the measure would make it too easy for school districts to abandon traditional, first language-instruction programs that comply with the state's remaining bilingual education rules.

Those bilingual programs, they said, give many English learners the chance to study key subjects and develop critical thinking skills before they are able to master English.

"It's not that we don't want to assimilate. We do want to become mainstream, but we also want to learn the correct methods of critical thinking and the structure of language," said Sen. Hilda Solis, an El Monte Democrat who has opposed the Alpert bill and saw her own, alternative reform plan stall in the Senate.

Jose Moreno, a member of Solis' staff, recalled when, as a Spanish-speaking third-grader, he was put into an English-only classroom in the San Joaquin Valley with no language help. Without consulting Moreno, the school declared that his name would be "Joe."

"I had absolutely no clue what was going on," said Moreno, who added that while he eventually picked up English, he believes his academic progress and development of studying skills were hindered by a lack of initial Spanish-language help.

But Alpert said the current system is failing too many children and that her bill would not preclude any school district from continuing or beginning a variety of different first-language instruction programs. She said the state Board of Education is already granting some waivers to school districts that want to drop first-language teaching, but argued that her bill would require more accountability.

Supporters of the Alpert bill include the politically influential California Teachers Association, while opponents include the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund as well as groups that want only English taught in schools.

Justo Robles of the teachers association contended that critics have misread the Alpert bill. He said it would specifically prohibit "submersion," where English learners are thrown into a English-only classroom without help and left to sink or swim. Robles also said the measure would require schools to offer first-language instruction if an assessment showed a child would benefit.

The Legislature has tried many times to address bilingual education, and Alpert, whose daughter is a bilingual teacher, fears her measure may stall after an August Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing.

"I'm afraid that may well be its graveyard," she said, warning that voters may soon be faced with a possible ballot initiative -- being promoted by millionaire software developer Ron Unz -- that would generally require public schools to teach classes only in English.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante, D-Fresno, would say only that the speaker "intends to meet with Alpert before he does anything on this issue."

Other bills dealing with bilingual education have also been introduced, including measures, backed by some opponents of Alpert's bill, intended to beef up the training and supply of bilingual teachers.

Assemblyman Mike Honda, a San Jose Democrat and educator whose own first language was Japanese, said he may try to craft a new, overall reform plan after further talks with all sides. Honda was among those voting against Alpert's bill when it was approved earlier this month by the Assembly Education Committee.

Meanwhile, California's controversy over bilingual education continues. In a heated debate in Orange County, parents have protested a move by the Orange Unified School District to replace primary language instruction with an "English immersion" approach to teaching limited English-speaking students.

"If you put a child who only knows Spanish into an English-speaking class, what's going to happen to the child? He's going to be confused. He's going to be lost," said Maria Quiroz, a native of Mexico who says her three sons have performed well with the help of bilingual education classes.

But Bob Viviano, an Orange Unified school board member who opposed bilingual education, said: "We have something like 40 languages in the Orange Unified School District. The only ones that are segregated are Hispanics -- all the others are mainstreamed. I don't believe the Hispanic children are any less intelligent than the others."

Ken Chavez of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.