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Reaction to Bilingual Education Decision Varies

Schools: State board's move to loosen requirements fails to end dispute. Some districts plan no changes; others applaud action.

March 14, 1998|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Far from ending bilingual education, the State Board of Education's decision to loosen the rules on teaching children with limited English skills has hardened battle lines that have formed over an issue headed for a statewide vote in June.

Educators were split Friday on the board's decision the previous day to give local school districts more freedom to decide whether they want to offer bilingual instruction.

In one camp were those who said they favor native language education for their students and have no plans to drop it. Typical of this view were officials in the Santa Ana and Los Angeles unified school districts.

"We have a very strong bilingual program, and we're going to continue to offer it," said Joe Tafoya, deputy superintendent of Santa Ana Unified, Orange County's largest district, where 70% of the 54,000 students speak limited English.

In Los Angeles Unified, nearly half of the 680,000 students are not fluent in English. Victoria Castro, a district trustee, said she was "very confident that here in Los Angeles we will maintain and continue to improve our education for primary-language students."

San Francisco and Ventura unified school district officials also said they plan no changes.

But other districts that have scaled back native-language instruction--or plan to do so--applauded the news that the state board would scrap a provision requiring them to petition Sacramento for approval. New regulations governing language instruction have yet to be worked out.

The Capistrano Unified School District's board of trustees voted Monday night to switch from a bilingual program that lasts as long as six years to one that lasts only one or two. District officials were concerned that they might have to ask the state board for special approval.

"I was able to tell my bilingual director today, 'Hey, don't even worry about calling the state board to see if we need to have a waiver.' Now it doesn't matter," said James A. Fleming, superintendent of the 40,000-student Orange County district.

In the Westminster School District, which obtained a precedent-setting waiver from bilingual education in 1996, a school official, Tracy Painter, said the 9,500-student system may face less red tape as it continues its English-immersion plan.

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The state board's actions also could have repercussions for a campaign to curtail bilingual education by voter initiative. Proposition 227, the so-called English for the Children initiative, seeks to end most native-language teaching.

Holli Thier, spokeswoman for the No on 227 campaign, said the state board's action underscores the contention that the initiative would impose a statewide mandate.

"Local school districts need to have choices," Thier said, "and they're the ones that can best determine how to educate children. The problem with Prop. 227 is it will outlaw all of that choice."

But Ron K. Unz, who launched the initiative, said the state board's action would have little political effect.

Skirmishing over bilingual education rules also is expected to continue next month when the state board determines the shape of new regulations.

Bilingual education advocates argue that fiscal provisions of state law require school districts to offer bilingual education when necessary--even though the state's bilingual education statute expired in 1987 and was never replaced.

Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction, noted the legal debate in a statement criticizing the state board's action and implying that many regulatory issues remain unresolved.

"I have a constitutional responsibility to uphold the law, and until the law is changed formally, I will uphold the existing legal requirements to teach and provide support for all children to develop fluency in English and obtain high academic achievement," Eastin said.

But Gov. Pete Wilson applauded the board.

"What we support is the acquisition of English language skills as quickly as possible," said Wilson spokesman Dan Edwards, "and the reality that there may be a way in Calexico that works much better than the way you may be using in Elk Grove or Humboldt County. Now this kind of leaves the slate open."

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Times staff writers Doug Smith and Fred Alvarez contributed to this report.

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