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August 1997, Volume 4, Number 8

California: Bilingual Education

Bilingual Education. The California Legislature in June 1997 approved legislation that would give state school districts more flexibility in teaching limited English proficient children in K-12 schools. School districts would no longer be required to teach children whose first language is not English in their own tongue. School districts would be required--for the first time--to measure the educational progress of the 1.3 million California students who are not fluent in English.

In early July, the California state Board of Education voted 5 to 2 in favor of permitting Orange County to drop bilingual education for one year: the superintendent of the 29,000 student district said that: "After careful study, we've determined there is no evidence that bilingual education has been the least bit effective, anywhere in the United States, for the last 30 years."

A third of the Orange district students are Latino, and in late July, a group of Latino parents sued the Orange County School District to prevent it from dismantling bilingual programs. To do so, they believe, could deprive 2,000 students of "equal educational opportunities." According to one advocate: "Immigrant parents don't want their children so preoccupied in the quest to learn English that they receive no instruction in anything else--and never recover."

In 1995-96, the first language of some 991,000 K-12 children was Spanish, followed by 49,000 Vietnamese; 30,000 Hmong; 24,000 Cantonese; 22,0000 Filipino; 21,000 Khmer; 16,000 Korean; 15,000 Armenian; 11,000 Laotian; and 9,000 Mandarin. About 30 percent of these LEP children were in bilingual programs in 1995-96. California was short 26,000 bilingual teachers in 1997.

Federal and state bilingual programs were begun after the 1974 US Supreme Court Lau decision, which required schools to make special provision for children with a language other than English.

California's bilingual education program has been in a legal limbo since 1987, when the previous law expired. Since then, the state Department of Education has required school districts to operate under rules that emphasize instruction in children's native languages. Even opponents of the bill who favor continued bilingual education, such as Senator Richard Polanco, (D-Los Angeles), said that "I am one who believes that every child should be taught English as expeditiously as possible, because that is the language in which they will compete."

In July 1997, former gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz and English-instruction activist Gloria Matta Tuchman announced a petition drive to gather the 432,000 signatures required to put an initiative, "English for the Children," before voters that would require that all public school instruction for children under the age of 10 be conducted in English unless a parent can prove his or her child would learn more quickly with a different approach. According to Unz, fewer than five percent of those enrolled in bilingual programs exit into mainstream English classes each year, leading to a growing gap between the number of LEP students and the number making the transition from native-language to English-language classes.

California voters tend to approve broad initiatives when the Legislature fails to address a perceived problem with more measured solutions.

According to Governor Wilson, California will spend $2.2 billion to educate 408,000 unauthorized children in K-12 schools in 1996-97, $550 million to incarcerate 21,000 illegal alien prisoners and $380 million for emergency and pregnancy-related health services.

Michael Granberry, "Latinos, Civil Rights Groups Sue Orange School District Education: Parents oppose move to drop bilingual classes," Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1997. Lou Cannon, "Bilingual Education Under Attack" Washington Post, July 21, 1997.