In the Santa Ana Unified School District, 308 teachers take Spanish language classes every week, and some find them difficult.
"We could be taking classes the rest of our lives," said one of the instructors, Bettie Howser.
The Santa Ana school district is second only to Los Angeles Unified in the number of non-English-speaking students, the majority of them Latino. Howser must learn to speak Spanish fluently because of a state law passed in 1976. The law, in effect, guarantees a student the right to be taught in a language he or she understands.
That law will expire next June, however, and a debate is going on in Sacramento over a bill to extend bilingual education until 1992.
The debate is intense, which is fine by Howser. "I think it's very good that this will be getting the problems all out in the open," she said.
Proponents of bilingual education use as an example a successful program at Eastman School in East Los Angeles. When bilingual teachers were used there to intensify teaching using Spanish, test scores rose significantly.
Opponents, however, cite the case of the Garden Grove Unified School District, which over the last 10 years received a wave of students from Vietnamese immigrant families.
Teachers fluent in both English and Vietnamese could not be found, so classes were taught in English with parents and others translating.
District officials reported that the Vietnamese students quickly learned English and now predominate among the district's honor students.
No comprehensive studies exist on the effectiveness of the last 10 years of bilingual education in California. The sides have been drawn along political lines, with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) pushing the bill and Republicans criticizing it.
Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego), who authored the 1976 law, insists that bilingual education works well in districts that genuinely support it.
He said, however, that the lack of bilingual teachers is a major problem. "I blame California's colleges and universities in this," Chacon said. "They have not trained the teachers we need."
Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican, has taken no public stance on the bill. But backers fear that if the bill does make it through the Legislature, Deukmejian may veto it.
Deukmejian's education adviser, William Cunningham, refused to discuss either the bill or the likelihood of a veto. But, he added, "I can't imagine there not being some form of bilingual education."