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California and the West

Democrats Seek New Bilingual Education Plan

Reform: Facing drive to virtually ban such instruction, leaders back bill to give districts a freer hand in picking best way to teach pupils who aren't fluent in English. Initiative co-sponsor Unz assails effort.


SACRAMENTO — Year in, year out, for a decade running, California legislators have tried to produce new standards for bilingual education in the state's classrooms.

They have always flunked. One bill was vetoed. A dozen others never even made it that far.

Now state legislators are at it again, taking a last stab at reform before the California electorate does the job for them. With an initiative to virtually dismantle bilingual education going before voters in June, a state senator is scrambling to push through a more moderate alternative designed to let local school districts decide how best to teach students not fluent in English.

The measure by Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) faces a stiff test in the Assembly, where it was bottled up in the final days of last year's legislative session. Even if it passes, the bill could be rendered moot if the ballot measure wins and survives legal challenge.

Republicans were bullish backers of Alpert's bill in 1997. But this is an election year, and they have abandoned Alpert and are moving in droves to support the anti-bilingual ballot measure, launched by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz and Orange County teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman.

Democrats, including members of the powerful Latino Caucus, have long been squeamish about tinkering with bilingual education, which is woven through the fabric of California's public school system despite continuing debate and controversy over its effectiveness.

But now, facing the Unz initiative, Democratic reluctance is beginning to thaw. Many see Alpert's legislation as a good political weapon in the coming war against the ballot measure.

If her bill is approved and signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson, who has yet to show his hand on either measure, Unz's foes will argue that the new regulations governing bilingual education are more flexible and preferable to the initiative, which they consider a "one-size-fits-all" approach.

"There's a sense of urgency," said Assemblyman Mike Honda (D-San Jose), an opponent of the Unz initiative who is active in efforts to craft a legislative compromise. "A lot of people want to point to something and say, 'See, we have something. We don't need Unz.' "

Democrats are also saying they now consider Alpert's bill worthwhile for California's 1.4 million schoolchildren not fluent in English. That group constitutes about a quarter of the state's students; the primary language of 4 out of 5 in the group is Spanish.

Alpert's bill would give school districts a freer hand to be innovative and shape whatever approach they believe works best, be it instruction in a student's native language, immersion in classrooms where English is spoken most of the time, or some other approach. It also would hold districts to account for producing positive results. Now, there are few penalties for districts that fail to move students quickly into English fluency and ensure progress in other subjects.

Advocates of bilingual education aren't exactly running to embrace the Alpert legislation, even with the Unz initiative on the horizon.

"There aren't going to be any winners in this," said Martha Zaragoza-Diaz, a lobbyist for the California Assn. for Bilingual Education. "If we're going to give districts flexibility, we need assurances that children are not only learning English, but also math, science and writing at their grade level."

The Unz initiative, in contrast, would require virtually all classroom instruction to be in English, with limited exceptions. Children who are not fluent would get about a year of special help in English and then move into mainstream classes.

Unz said his measure is filling the void left by Sacramento.

"Last year I expected the Legislature to finally do something, but they once again failed," he said. "That's 10 straight years! Now our initiative is going to a vote in four months. It's a very foolish thing for them to come in at the last moment and say they've agreed on something."

The California law governing bilingual education expired in 1987, but state education officials have continued to carry out its general intentions, prompted, in part, by rulings in federal civil rights lawsuits that prohibit putting children in classrooms where they cannot keep up because of language differences.

In California schools, that has translated into about 30% of non-English-speaking children taking traditional bilingual education classes, in which they are instructed in basic subjects in their native language while they learn English. The other 70% may receive help from bilingual teaching aides, specially crafted lessons in various academic subjects through so-called "sheltered English," classes in English as a second language, or perhaps just a bilingual dictionary. Many get virtually no extra help at all.

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