State Overhauls Rules on Bilingual Education


The State Board of Education endorsed a major overhaul of California’s bilingual education rules Thursday, telling school districts they will no longer be required to petition Sacramento for permission to scrap native-language instruction in favor of English-intensive methods.

The 10-0 vote begins a deregulation process that eventually could free local educators to teach non-English speakers as they see fit--as long as students are not left to founder unassisted. Critics have long called the current policies an unjustified state mandate to teach such students in their first language.

The board rescinded its current policies and set an April date to decide new ones.


Still, the fallout from the action was hard to predict. Many California school districts favor bilingual education. Others are awaiting the outcome of a statewide vote in June on Proposition 227, an initiative that would require most schoolchildren with limited English skills to be taught predominantly in English.

Several board members, explaining their vote, cited a recent state court decision that compelled them to act. Others said the state must face the reality that its bilingual education law expired 11 years ago and was never replaced--although the Legislature and state regulators have sought to preserve its intent.

“We’ve really been held hostage” by state interpretations of the expired law, said board President Yvonne Larsen. “We haven’t been comfortable with it.”

Board member Marion Joseph stressed that the action was not intended to sink bilingual education. “Locals will have to decide,” she said, when native-language teaching is needed.

The requirement to petition the state for the right to eliminate native-language instruction has been a cornerstone of what has been a pro-bilingual education policy for more than two decades in a state with the nation’s largest immigrant population.

But there is consensus that the legal basis for bilingual education has been in flux since California’s bilingual education law expired in 1987. Some argue that state law still calls for bilingual education when necessary.

This year, some lawmakers are seeking to rally behind SB 6, authored by state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado,) which would give school districts flexibility to choose between bilingual and English-intensive strategies. That approach is similar to the one endorsed by the state board Thursday, though it is not clear whether Alpert’s supporters will back the state board.

Federal courts have been reluctant to prescribe a single approach. In its landmark 1974 ruling in Lau v. Nichols, the U.S. Supreme Court found that San Francisco schools could not let Chinese-speaking students sink or swim in English-only classes, but sidestepped the question of what kinds of special help should be offered.

Bilingual education advocates denounced Thursday’s vote, saying that the board is threatening the rights of the state’s 1.4 million students classified as “limited English proficient.” Before the meeting, some advocates threatened legal action to block the deregulation. But afterward there was uncertainty.

“We’re in limbo,” said Maria Quezada, president of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education. “Until we can see the actual documents that come out, we don’t know what to oppose or not to oppose.”

The board’s action was prompted by a request from anti-bilingual education lobbyists from the Pacific Legal Foundation, based in Sacramento, and the Center for Equal Opportunity, of Washington, which recently joined a suit against Albuquerque, N.M., schools to stop bilingual education.

The deregulation drive comes as a statewide vote nears on Proposition 227, which calls for limited-English students to receive one year of special English lessons and then be put into mainstream classes. Few exceptions would be allowed.

The initiative, closely watched nationwide and leading in polls, is sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron K. Unz and Orange County schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman.

Initiative backers say transferring power to local educators won’t necessarily end bilingual education and therefore will have little impact on their campaign.

“Its practical effect is really negligible,” said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for the pro-227 campaign. “Those school districts that have entrenched bilingual programs will simply maintain them.”

About three in 10 limited-English students now receive formal instruction in their native tongues, with another 20% getting informal help from bilingual aides or others. Of the rest, some students have gone through bilingual programs but have not yet been transitioned into mainstream classes, while others receive only intensive English lessons or no help at all.

The state estimates it is short more than 20,000 qualified bilingual teachers.

Momentum for Thursday’s action had been building for some time, fed by the same political climate that spawned Proposition 227.

Since 1996 the board, dominated by Republican appointees skeptical of bilingual education, has approved, or declined to veto, five petitions from school districts seeking waivers from native-language instruction. All were from Orange County; Santa Barbara city schools plan to follow. None have been turned down in that time.

In February, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald B. Robie struck down a waiver issued to the Orange Unified School District, in a lawsuit brought by bilingual education advocates.

The judge’s ruling was complex and controversial, with both sides claiming victory. A final judgment and orders are still pending. The board discussed the ruling in closed session Thursday.

Bill Lucia, the board’s executive director, said Robie’s ruling should be interpreted as saying that state and federal law do not require bilingual education and, therefore, that the board had no power to issue a waiver. Bilingual education advocates disagree.

Janet Nicholas, the state board member who proposed Thursday’s changes, said before the meeting that she was influenced by what she perceives as a legal vacuum on the issue. “It’s real hard to understand how regulations emerge from expired legislation,” Nicholas said.