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California and the West

Assembly Panel Advances Bilingual Education Bill

Government: Democratic plan would give school districts leeway in deciding how to teach non-English speakers. But GOP support has mostly gone to Unz initiative.


SACRAMENTO — Budged by a looming ballot measure that would virtually dismantle bilingual education, state lawmakers Wednesday began pushing anew a more moderate bill that would give school districts leeway to decide how best to teach children not fluent in English.

Ending months of squabbling among Democrats over details of the legislation, the Assembly Appropriations Committee voted 11 to 5 to send the measure, SB 6 by state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), to the Assembly floor later this month.

It could still face problems there. Republicans, who largely supported the bill in 1997, have abandoned it to back the June ballot measure, Proposition 227, launched by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron K. Unz.

Democrats, meanwhile, remain divided. Some liberals, including several members of the powerful Latino Caucus, remain uneasy about letting school districts back away from traditional bilingual education, which teaches children core subjects in their native language for several years while they learn English.

Others, however, say the Alpert bill could prove to be a powerful weapon against Proposition 227, which would give children who are not fluent about a year of special help in English before moving them into mainstream classes.

Unz has repeatedly said he decided to launch his initiative after watching state lawmakers try and fail repeatedly over the past decade to craft new bilingual education rules.

Alpert's bill seemed to be gaining momentum last year, but was bottled up late in the session after the Latino Caucus expressed concerns that some students would be left to sink academically in English-dominated classrooms. Alpert and the bill's detractors have been haggling over the fine print ever since.

"It's not a perfect bill, but what's our choice?" said Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles). "We've got to do something or the public will say we're not acting and go for Unz. This moves the ball forward. It's a balance."

Villaraigosa, whose wife is a bilingual teacher, said he understands that balky Democrats are "standing up for their principles. But darn it, this is an issue with consequences for real people, and sometimes we have to bend."

The only Democrat to oppose the measure in the Appropriations Committee was Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park).

A renewed push for Alpert's bill follows a State Board of Education decision last month that shifted control over bilingual education into local hands. Despite that decision, boosters of Alpert's bill say it is needed to cement bilingual standards into law.

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