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Broadening the Ebonics Debate

A Los Angeles School Board majority on Monday stalled the divisive debate over Ebonics, postponing further consideration on how to help all students master mainstream English until after the important $2.4-billion school bond vote on the April 8 municipal ballot. It was a common-sense decision but it’s a shame it took weeks of effort to arrive at something so perfectly obvious.

The board rejected motions by member Barbara Boudreaux that specified language development for African American students, then narrowly approved Mark Slavkin’s appropriate compromise. The substitute motion directs the district staff to document by May 1 “the achievement levels of African American students, especially in the area of English proficiency.” This is a necessary first step to identify how many--or how few--of the school system’s 92,000 black students actually need extra help. Wouldn’t it have been more logical to have done that before this fractious debate began?

The motion also orders a review of existing programs that seek to help African American students master standard English, including a determination of which programs have proved most effective. No program should be expanded before a thorough evaluation determines which work best to improve the language development of children who do not speak standard English.

District officials may recommend additional teacher training and special classroom programs to help all students master standard English on a systemic, districtwide basis. This approach is equitable and sensible and should reduce the angry divisions between some African Americans and some Latinos who fear that extra help for black students would come at the expense of bilingual education.

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Ultimately, educators should make budget recommendations to expand or create successful programs. This requirement safeguards the district’s overburdened finances by relying on proved programs.

A prolonged and heated debate over Ebonics would have distracted voters from the merits of the school bond measure, which presumably would bear greater value to the system.

Now the district has to hope that voters don’t punish the school district administration for considering an expansion of the program before it knew how well the program performed.


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