Sacramento Bee

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

Bilingual Alternative: At last, a Reasonable Middle Ground in Education Debate

The effort comes literally at the eleventh hour, but it is not too late to cheer Assembly passage of a bilingual education reform bill that offers a moderate alternative to the radical changes proposed by a June initiative. In finally passing SB 6, lawmakers have offered the prospect of flexible reform rather than a one-size-fits-all mandate.

With expected Senate agreement still to come, the big question about the new legislation is whether Gov. Pete Wilson intends to sign the bill. In the best interests of more than 1.3 million students who need help learning English, he should promptly do so.

The 800-pound gorilla in this scenario is Proposition 227, the bilingual education ballot measure initiated by businessman Ron Unz. The June 2 ballot measure has shown strong support in polls, fueled by dissatisfaction with the history of bilingual education in the state -- until recently a statewide mandate that has worked in some districts but failed, or been impossible to implement, in too many others. The state Board of Education recently dropped the mandate and empowered local districts to set policy individually -- itself a valuable reform, but not enough.

Sen. Deirdre Alpert and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone crafted SB 6 as a moderate middle approach that can address the failures of the old system without imposing a single, inflexible approach as mandated by Proposition 227. Their bill gives individual districts flexibility to design their own approaches, but also holds them accountable for measurable results, usually within three years after students enter the bilingual system. It is a better approach than the old system or the untested Unz proposal, which basically offers a single year for learning English.

The bill requires districts to test the progress of students learning English while also keeping track of what they are learning in other subjects. Districts where students don't show progress will be forced to redesign their efforts or face state intervention.

Both the current bilingual education system and the proposed Unz initiative demand that districts statewide adopt a single, uniform policy. That approach just won't work in a state as big and diverse as California. Bilingual education in one district may be exclusively focused on teaching English to young Spanish speakers, while another must teach English to eighth-graders who speak Hmong, Vietnamese and Russian. Resources will vary from district to district; the demands of parents likewise will differ.

Allowing greater local control while demanding accountability is a good, common-sense solution. The Alpert-Firestone bill provides for that and ought to be adopted and signed into law. If Proposition 227 passes, it would overturn this new law and take effect itself. Voters have scant time now to consider whether to try this moderate approach of local autonomy or throw it over for the Unz experiment. But even as time runs short, that's a choice they very much deserve.