Sacramento Bee

Wednesday, April 1, 1998

EDITORIAL
Reform's Last Stand
Give bilingual flexibility, then hold schools to account

The Assembly Appropriations Committee has a chance today to do the right thing and move California toward a sensible state policy for educating California's 1.3 million limited-English-speaking students. To do so, both Democrats and Republicans will have to put aside pet ideologies and loyalties to do what's best for children.

Sen. Dede Alpert and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone are seeking reconsideration of their bilingual overhaul bill, SB 6, which was defeated last summer. The bill, already approved by the Senate, would complete the reform begun last month by the state Board of Education, when it revoked state Department of Education rules mandating bilingual programs for limited-English proficient (LEP) students.

Like the state board, Alpert and Firestone would give school districts the flexibility to design their own programs for teaching English to non-native speakers. Such flexibility is essential. No single approach to teaching works best for all students in all communities. Giving districts the flexibility to design programs to meet the needs and wishes of individual students and their parents and to fit the circumstances of particular schools is only common sense. It's a far better approach than the old bilingual mandate or Ron Unz's one-size-fits-all English-immersion experiment mandated in his initiative on the June ballot.

But Alpert and Firestone would go beyond the board in requiring school districts to show results. Districts would have to assess the progress of LEP students both in learning English and other academic subjects. Those whose programs failed to bring LEP students up to benchmarks would be subject to state intervention.

That combination of district flexibility and accountability doesn't satisfy ideologues who think they have the right answer for everyone, whether it's bilingual instruction or sink-or-swim English immersion. But it's the right thing for the children.

For too long the Legislature has let those ideologues block reform even in the face of protests by parents and evidence that current policies aren't working. With the Unz measure on the June ballot, the hour is late. But by passing SB 6, lawmakers could show voters that they've finally got the message and set the state on a better course than the sloganeers offer.