Leon Worden

New bilingual bill offers hope

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, April 17, 1996

NOTE: Subsequent to the publication of this article in April 1996, Assembly Bill 2310 has been amended in such a way that the Committee to Reform Bilingual Education (REBILLED) no longer supports it.

More than 1 million California schoolchildren, or one in five, lack the English language skills necessary to participate effectively in the regular English-only classroom.

The state's approach to dealing with this problem for the past 20 years has been to make schools teach non-English speakers the core subjects — reading, writing, arithmetic — in their native languages, with only a very small part of the day devoted to English instruction.

Although the law governing bilingual education in California expired in 1987, state policy makers still make life difficult for schools, teachers and parents who want to use alternative approaches that teach children English.

The irony of it is that the primary purpose of "bilingual" education is not to develop literacy in two languages, but rather to teach English to children who have different language backgrounds so that they may more fully participate in our society as adults.

About a decade ago, I became involved with a nationwide group of educators and others who are concerned that bilingual education, in its present form, has not achieved this objective.

The challenge is enormous. Dozens of different languages are spoken in the homes of children currently enrolled in Santa Clarita schools. In Los Angeles, the number of different languages approaches 100.

Before bilingual education, children were on their own. They either sank beneath the language barrier or swam through it. One-third of all Latino children never graduated from high school.

This was unacceptable to a nation caught up in the throes of the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and '70s. We passed laws and created special programs to rectify the injustice.

Unfortunately, many of the programs haven't borne fruit. Even though fluency in English is no longer a requirement for graduation in the Los Angeles Unified School District, many children never get that far. In spite of bilingual education, one-third of all Latino children still drop out of school, condemning themselves to join a permanent and growing underclass.

State policy has remained fairly stagnant for the last 20 years, but great strides have been made in the development of new teaching techniques over that time. Tools like "Sheltered English" and "English as a Second Language" make English comprehensible to children who cannot otherwise keep up in the English-only classroom. While our local schools employ these tools on a limited basis, the state tends to restrict their usage.

Immigrant parents are no different from anyone else in their desire to give their children a better life. Surveys typically show that the biggest thing immigrant parents want our public schools to do is to teach their children English.

Today's immigrant parents often have to jump through hoops to remove their children from bilingual classrooms. It can be a daunting task for parents whose own English language skills may not be sufficient for them to work their way around the education bureaucracy.

But there is hope.

I mentioned my long involvement in bilingual education reform. Frankly, I shelved it several years ago, once it became clear that little would change at the local level until some major changes came out of Sacramento.

Now, for the first time in memory, the makeup of the State Assembly is such that real reform is possible.

Santa Barbara Assemblyman Brooks Firestone has introduced a new, comprehensive bilingual bill that gives control over bilingual education issues to local school districts, teachers and, above all, parents.

Firestone's bill, AB 2310, strikes the native language requirement from the old bilingual education law and allows school districts to devise their own programs for their own unique populations of immigrant children. It acknowledges the educational advances that have been made over the years and gives schools the authority to implement these new techniques as they see fit.

Most importantly, the bill gives language-minority parents the opportunity to be directly involved in their children's education from the outset. Parents are counseled about the different approaches and are then free to place their children in bilingual classes or in classes that use English as the primary mode of instruction.

Firestone's bill cleared the Assembly Education Committee last week and is expected to pass the full body later this month.

"The real hurdle will be the State Senate," says Gloria Matta Tuchman, a former candidate for State Schools Superintendent who now chairs a group called REBILLED, the Committee to Reform Bilingual Education. "We need all the support letters we can generate."

Interested parties should write to the California Legislature in care of Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, P.O. Box 942849, Sacramento, Calif. 94249 and urge a "yes" vote on Assembly Bill 2310. Firestone will forward your letters to all the right places in the Senate.

    Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident.

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