May 18, 1998

To the Members of the California Senate:

I am returning Senate Bill No. 6 without my signature.

This bill would enact requirements for the education of limited English proficient (LEP) pupils in California's public schools.

There is great value in having California's students achieve bilingual or even multi-lingual language proficiency as their ability permits and their interest dictates. California stands to benefit both culturally and commercially to the extent our people gain such skills. But in California's schools, English should not be a foreign language. And yet it remains one for too many LEP students -- because of the failure of bilingual programs.

Bilingual education in California has been a serious failure. It has done a serious disservice by keeping LEP students dependent on their primary language for far too long. By denying them early fluency in English, bilingual programs have seriously short-changed these children educationally.

Despite its purported deference to local decision making and its stated intention to create greater flexibility for implementing school districts, SB 6 in fact fails to provide much hope of improvement.

It requires school districts to collect a welter of data.

It requires the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to impose a bureaucratic blizzard of regulations on the districts.

It requires the districts to compile mountains of reports to the Board and the Department of Education.

But in the same breath in which it "declares that all programs under this article shall develop English learners' proficiency in English as effectively and efficiently as possible," it also requires that "English learners" first "demonstrate academic achievement in the core academic curriculum" at their grade level, rather than first achieving English proficiency. This is a prescription for continuing to teach the core curriculum in the student's primary language, relegating English instructio n to a role of secondary importance and thereby prolonging the student's dependency on his or her primary language. By contrast, federal law truly does afford to districts a choice as to whether to achieve English proficiency first and then pursue the teaching of the core curriculum in English, with compensatory assistance if necessary. SB 6 does not give that choice.

Moreover, SB 6 would require that the new STAR testing program, just adopted in 1997, be modified to require testing in all "major" primary languages. This is hardly a step calculated to reduce dependency on primary languages. The bill goes further in the wrong direction by stating an intent to develop the statewide matrix examination in the "major" primary languages.

It has been over ten years since the sunset of the state statute creating the bilingual education program. Despite the sunset, the program has been able to continue because the funding has continued past the sunset. Because of the gridlock in addressing substantive reform of the program, I advised the Legislature's leaders last year that time was running out on a legislative solution, and that if they didn't take immediate action, the issue would be solved outside the Legislative process. Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to get a bill to my desk. A decade of failure has forced this issue to the ballot and to the voters for resolution.

To her credit, the author of SB 6 has been trying for four years to get a reform of bilingual programs to my desk. But even though the qualification of Proposition 227 for the June ballot had allowed her finally to succeed, legislative consensus has come not only late but with serious flaws.

Contrary to the rhetoric promoting this bill as one that provides parents and school districts with the local control to design programs that best meet the needs of children, the bill in fact not only evokes the spirit of the old bilingual law and programs in prescribing a litany of procedural steps, but directs districts to choose so-called "simultaneous" bilingual core instruction -- that is, instruction in the core curriculum conducted in the students' primary language, accompanied by instru ction to teach them English.

The bill requires LEP students both to be English language proficient and to possess the academic skills comparable to other pupils of the same grade level (in their school district) before they are permitted to transition into the mainstream school curriculum and are taught in English.

As a result, a major flaw of this bill is that it redefines LEP students as "English Learners" in such a way that a child may continue to be designated as a LEP student and to be taught in the child's primary language for years after the child has learned English.

A LEP student should be re-designated as English proficient solely using criteria based on the attainment of English language fluency -- period. Any other approach is inconsistent with the major goal of our education system: a standard of literacy permitting students to achieve their personal potential and professional or career goals, as early as possible.

Regrettably, the author of SB 6 was unwilling to make the extensive and necessary changes to her bill that are required to deal with its flaws, and to liberate children from the needless, artificial limits imposed upon their learning ability by bilingual education.

In every society throughout history, education has been the path of upward mobility, and education begins with attaining fluency in the language of the country. No child and no adult can fully participate in the culture or the commerce of California without gaining fluency in English. Until children can read, write and speak English fluently, they are relegated to second-class citizenship.