Proposal Revives Bilingual Education Debate

Times Staff Writer

Several politicians and educators called on the governor Thursday to support legislation that would allow school districts to include extra reading and writing lessons for elementary students struggling to learn English, in a debate that has rekindled California’s dormant language wars.

The bill, SB 1769, sponsored by state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), additionally would restore about $1.6 million in funding for the state Board of Education that was eliminated in the 2006-07 budget, when a compromise could not be reached on textbook criteria.

Supporters of the bill argue that recently adopted standards for textbook materials do not address the needs of California’s 1.6 million English learners, who trail their English-speaking counterparts on standardized test scores.


The new standards will govern textbook materials for elementary and middle school students from 2008 through 2014. They call for a curriculum of English and reading lessons geared to all students during the regular class period, plus an additional hour of instruction targeted at English learners.

Supporters of the legislation want to include an option allowing textbook publishers to submit materials designed to accelerate English reading, writing and comprehension skills for English learners during the regular class period, by incorporating more pictures and simple vocabulary.

Districts could choose to use the new materials, but they would not be mandatory. The Assn. of California School Administrators and more then 40 school districts have endorsed the legislation.

“Districts cannot continue to risk the development of literacy among English learners because of a lack of appropriate materials,” Rosa Molina, associate superintendent of the San Jose Unified School District, said at a Sacramento news conference. “We want to move past the rhetoric and debate because we have the reality of children walking through our doors in September.”

Escutia alluded to the politically charged nature of the debate. “There are people who look at this and say, ‘Oh there she goes again with English learners, she must be pushing bilingual education,’ but nothing could be further from the truth,” Escutia said.

Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), chairwoman of the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, said that textbooks cost California $500 million, and she said the state can’t afford to spend resources on books that don’t address student achievement gaps.

The question of how best to teach English skills has devolved into a debate over bilingual education, a contentious issue in California. Opponents accuse the bill’s supporters of fostering a bilingual approach and say it would lead to separate classrooms and unequal standards for English learners.

Proposition 227, which passed in 1998, mandates that all students learn to read and write in English. Ron Unz, who drafted that measure, said he suspects that SB 1769 is a stealthy attempt to bypass some of its provisions.

“I’m awfully suspicious that this may, in fact, represent an attempt to sneak bilingual education back into California through the back door,” said Unz, a Palo Alto software developer who is chairman of the group English for the Children. “All of the leading people pushing this effort were among the leading advocates of bilingualism.”

It is a politically sensitive issue for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself an immigrant, who has spoken of his struggle to learn English. And recently, former Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis sent an open letter to Schwarzenegger expressing their support for uniform standards and defending the state board’s English-language curriculum.

The governor has taken no formal position on the legislation but is concerned that it might lead to isolating students based on their language ability, said spokeswoman Margita Thompson.

“He fears that using separate books and curriculum for subjects that all students take will lead to segregating and separating kids just because English is not their first language,” Thompson said.

The governor is open to working with Latino legislators to explore other options, including after-school programs or supplemental materials to assist students, said Thompson. He has also included $20 million in this year’s budget for a pilot project to help identify the best teaching practices for English learners.

Schwarzenegger is also intent on restoring funding to the state board and its nine staff members, whose salaries have been picked up by the administration and the state Department of Education. Roger Magyar, the board’s executive director, said his office is continuing to function but that the impasse threatens to hamper other critical work such as overseeing the state’s testing system and implementation of the education code.

He said the board is not inclined to give in to the demands of SB 1769 supporters but is hoping for some sort of compromise.

“Perhaps,” Magyar said, “we can give some instructions to publishers to help clarify issues and bridge some of the gap.”