SACRAMENTO — Legislation that would extend the state's bilingual education program passed its first test in the Legislature on Tuesday when it won the approval of the Assembly Education Committee.
By a vote of 10 to 3, the committee approved a bill by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) that would extend the bilingual education program until 1992. Without legislative action, the California program will end June 30.
Representatives of more than a dozen organizations testified in support of the bill, including school administrators, teachers, minority groups and the state Department of Education.
But the most moving testimony came from 12-year-old Pedro Orozco of Norwalk, the recent winner of an essay contest on how bilingual education had affected his life. He told the committee that he did not speak English when he began kindergarten and was enrolled in a bilingual program. By the first grade, he began reading in English and is now in classes for gifted students, he said.
"Bilingual education has enriched my life," he told the committee. "I could not have learned as much as I have if I had not been in a bilingual program. My friends would not be many had I not been bilingual."
Brown's bill, in addition to giving new life to the bilingual program, would extend educational programs for gifted students, native Americans, and urban school districts with large poor and minority populations. It would also extend the Miller-Unruh reading program for children with reading difficulties.
Last year, Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a similar measure at the request of Republican legislators, who had unsuccessfully sought to relax requirements on how school districts can operate bilingual education.
Under existing state law, whenever there are 10 or more students in a single grade who do not speak English, a school must provide instruction in their own language while they learn English. There are now about 525,000 students enrolled in bilingual education programs in California.
Without the state program, bilingual programs would be guided by federal law, which is less restrictive than the California program.
By vetoing last year's legislation, Deukmejian bolstered the power of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature, who hold a minority of the seats in both houses. Now, any bill to extend the bilingual law before it expires in four months will require "urgency" status, which means it would need a two-thirds vote for approval rather than a simple majority.
"The opposition to the bill and the veto had nothing to do with merit," Brown told the committee.
Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier), one of the leading supporters of the initiative last year that made English the official language of the state, has already offered a GOP proposal that would allow school districts to reduce the scope of their instruction to non-English-speaking students.
Although debate over bilingual education has been divided largely along partisan lines, Brown's proposal won two surprise votes from Republican legislators, Assemblymen Richard Longshore of Orange and Charles W. Quackenbush of Saratoga. Without their support, Brown would have had to postpone a vote until later in the week when he could gather together all nine Democrats on the committee to vote for the bill.