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California and the West

Assembly Tries to Beat Prop. 227 to the Punch

Education: Legislators approve milder version of the ballot measure that would effectively ban bilingual education in the state. Polls say voters may not be so easily appeased.

April 21, 1998|MAX VANZI and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — In a desperate attempt to head off a June ballot initiative that would end most bilingual instruction for non-English-speaking schoolchildren, the state Assembly on Monday tried to sell the public on a less harsh approach.

Concluding a heated lower house debate, legislators easily passed a bill designed to allow local control and flexibility in bilingual teaching, in contrast to the more stringent ballot measure. The vote was 50 to 27.

The bill by state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) was hastily sent to the Senate for a final legislative vote before being sent to Gov. Pete Wilson for his signature.

It is unclear whether Wilson will sign Alpert's bill. The governor has not taken a stance on the June ballot initiative, but he held discussions with Democratic leaders last year asking them to send him a bill reforming bilingual education. He also warned lawmakers that if they didn't act soon, voters would do the job for them.

Voters may well act in any case by passing Proposition 227 in June: Opinion polls show overwhelming support for the measure, sponsored by conservative businessman Ron Unz.

"This is exactly the sort of parliamentary gamesmanship that gives California state government a bad reputation," Unz said. "This bill would have virtually no impact on the problems with bilingual education facing our state. It simply represents a fig leaf for lawmakers trying to justify their inflated salaries."

With six weeks to go before the June 2 primary election, backers of the Alpert bill said there is still time to swing voters away from the ballot measure.

"I'm not at all sure that Proposition 227 will prevail," said Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-San Rafael), who led the fight for passage on the Assembly floor. Despite polls showing that three-quarters of California voters approve of the Unz initiative, "public support has been losing ground" recently, she said.

A "reasonable legislative alternative," Mazzoni said, would show that "we've already addressed the problem of English learners."

Republican opponents ridiculed the notion that there is a realistic chance of changing public opinion at this late date.

Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), for example, asked majority Democrats to explain, "Where were you on Sept. 9," at the end of last year's legislative session. If enacted then, "bill could have taken effect on Jan. 1, 1998, and given a chance . . . to show the people that we can act" to reform the bilingual system.

In contrast to the Unz approach, which would immerse non-English-speaking children in English-language instruction in the early years, the Alpert bill would give school districts a freer hand to shape whatever approach they believe works best. That might include instruction in a student's native language, immersion in classrooms dominated by English or some other approach. It also would hold districts accountable for producing positive results.

Assembly insiders said Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) had worked to persuade fellow Democratic Latino members that the Alpert bill was their best hope to hold off an Unz victory at the polls.

Nine Republicans joined the majority Democrats in voting for the bill.

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