Sacramento Bee

October 22, 1997

Bilingual Education: A Wake-Up Call for the Legislature

Stark and mounting evidence that the state's bilingual education policies have failed to help enough limited-English-speaking children master this country's common language has not yet succeeded in moving the Legislature to reform a broken system. Will public opinion finally crack the whip?

Last week, the Los Angeles Times published a poll that showed an overwhelming majority of 1,100 voters randomly sampled statewide support a budding ballot initiative to teach the vast majority of public schoolchildren in English. Some 80 percent of all voters surveyed -- and a striking 84 percent of Latino voters -- want bilingual education policies, which now favor instruction in a child's native language, to be radically changed. If the Legislature was deaf to this call before, it should be hard to ignore now.

The legislative process has always been the proper venue for reform. It would allow the important policy questions affecting 1.3 million children to be hammered out by a committee with some level of expertise. Though hardly perfect, that process would be far preferable to having a key piece of education policy set by a voting public that has scarcely glanced at the fine print of a ballot initiative.

The Legislature had the chance to act this summer when state Sen. Deirdre Alpert and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone offered a promising bill to give local districts more flexibility in how they educate limited-English-proficient students and hold them accountable for results. The bill was approved on a bipartisan vote in the Senate, but Democrats in the Assembly Appropriations Committee quashed it before it could reach the Assembly floor.

Now stuck with a number of initiative-imposed, and virtually unamendable, constraints that hamper its ability to govern in many other areas, the Legislature should recognize all too well why allowing bilingual education to be reformed via the statewide ballot is a clumsy remedy to a complex problem. If enacted, the English for the Children initiative, which appears likely to qualify for the June ballot, could only be amended by another initiative or a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, meaning that a dramatically different educational approach would be instituted with practically no capacity to fine-tune it if it didn't work.

The Times poll announces that increasing and diverse numbers of Californians recognize a major problem and want it fixed. They seem willing, at least initially, to endorse a radical solution in the form of the English for the Children initiative. Legislators still have a chance to enact a more moderate reform in the Alpert-Firestone bill, though even that may not slow the momentum gathering behind the initiative. But at least then they'd show a capacity for addressing a problem of concern to many constituents, not just ignoring it.