The bilingual lesson

CALIFORNIA WAS SUPPOSED TO have learned a sad but important lesson from its years of experimenting with bilingual education: When you isolate a group of largely poor, minority students and give them different instruction from what other students receive, they tend to get a dumbed-down, second-rate education.

Unfortunately, that lesson hasn’t fully sunk in. Nor has the idea that playground politics and retribution are not in the best interests of schoolchildren.

This spring, the Assn. of California School Administrators and more than 30 school districts presented to the state Board of Education a flawed proposal to offer English-language learners a simpler language-arts curriculum, with separate textbooks. The plan, called Option VI, would require those students to devote 2 1/2 hours a day learning from texts with shorter words and bigger pictures. Either teachers would have to somehow teach two curriculums at the same time -- one for English speakers, one for the rest -- or the English learners would have to be separated out. Either way, students lose.

The board, which is responsible for setting standards and choosing curriculum and textbooks, rightly rejected Option VI as a regressive return to the days of lower expectations for children of color. That’s when Sacramento got silly. In a fit of pique, the Legislature stripped all funding for board members’ support staff. That triggered the resignation of board President Glee Johnson, and other members considered following her lead. Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) introduced a measure to restore the money but still override the board’s decision. This is a juvenile way to deal with an adult problem.


California has embarked on a steep and difficult climb -- one that is far from complete -- to set higher standards, adopt strong curriculum and apply those standards and curriculum evenly so that inner-city students get the same education as their more affluent peers. It is true that the state’s core English curriculum is, in many ways, a tough fit for the 1.6 million children in California who can’t yet speak the language. Teachers have been scrambling to bridge the gaps, and they are pleading for help. The Board of Education did approve an extra hour of English instruction for those students, but that’s not enough to make up for the 2 1/2 hours each day in which children feel lost amid material they don’t comprehend.

Extra help is a valuable thing, but a wholly different curriculum for English learners reopens the door to the days of lower standards for the nation’s immigrant children.

Escutia’s bill should be dumped, the Legislature should stop playing petty politics with the budget, and both sides should work out a solution that gives teachers the tools to help all students learn the same rigorous curriculum.