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Advocates Assail Calif. Bilingual-Education Proposal

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A draft proposal discussed at a meeting of the California Board of Education late last week could dismantle bilingual-education programs across the state, advocates of the programs fear.

At the heart of advocates' concerns is whether some students would continue to be taught in their native tongue. The draft plan would replace the existing board policy, which is neutral on the subject, with language that emphasizes that native-language assistance is not required. The board's policy and planning committee did not act on the proposal at its Dec. 8 meeting, but the board is expected to continue its deliberations next month.

Groups such as Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy Inc. and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund have challenged the proposal's legality and pledged to file a lawsuit if the board adopts it.

The California Association for Bilingual Education and California Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages organized a group of bilingual-education experts and school district representatives to testify before the board at its meeting last week, where board members stressed that the draft proposal is only one of many options they will consider.

The board's current policy states that educating students in their native language is a "viable option." It was originally written in 1986 to complement a state bilingual-education law that was allowed to expire in 1987.

But the bilingual-education law said that in the event the law was not renewed, its "general purposes" would remain in effect. Thus, in monitoring school districts' plans for L.E.P. students, state education officials consider the law's legislative intent section to still be binding.

Legal Questions

That section of the law calls for students to be educated in their primary language "when necessary" to insure them equal opportunity for academic achievement.

The draft proposal before the board would define "when necessary" using standards in federal civil-rights law, which requires only that L.E.P. students be given assistance necessary to allow them to participate in school, not necessarily native-language or bilingual instruction.

Thus, some legal advocates charge that the board's draft would violate state law. Conversely, some districts have accused the state education department of illegally imposing requirements on them.

California districts are not required to use a particular method to educate their language-minority students. However, the state education department, which reviews districts' plans, expects them to educate at least those students with the least English proficiency in their native language during some part of the school day.

About 20 districts have received state waivers to opt out of all native-language instruction, but they must show that their L.E.P. students learn English and are succeeding academically.

During the 1993-94 school year, only 28 percent of the state's 1.2 million L.E.P. students were being taught in their native language in at least two subjects.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has repeatedly vetoed legislation that would resurrect some of the more regulatory aspects of the old state law. (See Education Week, 10/19/94.)

The draft proposal, which was written by Greg Geeting, the board's executive director, suggests that Mr. Wilson would favor the proposed changes.

Maureen DiMarco, Governor Wilson's secretary for child development and education, declined to comment on the board's proposal.

'A Full Range of Options'

In an interview, Mr. Geeting said he submitted the draft as one option the board could consider.

"I don't want the discussion truncated" by advocates urging the board to let current policy stand, Mr. Geeting said.

Some observers had criticized the board for moving too quickly and not holding more hearings.

"I think they thought they could just sneak it by everybody," said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, an English-as-a-second-language consultant to the Los Angeles County office of education.

But Marion M. McDowell, the president of the state board, said she intends to get more input before the board decides whether, or how, to revise its policy.

Others suggested the board is seeking to change its policy before Democrat Delaine Eastin takes over the state superintendency, a notion Mr. Geeting called "bogus."

In the Assembly, Ms. Eastin backed bilingual-education bills, including the bill to restore parts of the law that expired in 1987. A spokesman for Ms. Eastin said she had no comment on the plan.

A spokeswoman for the acting superintendent, William D. Dawson, said that using the federal standard for L.E.P. student policy would be "too vague."

Political Climate Cited

Many observers suggested the state's political climate, particularly passage of the controversial Proposition 187, has spurred the board to revisit its policy.

The board is made up of Mr. Wilson's appointees, and the Governor championed the controversial ballot measure, which would deny illegal immigrants most social services, including public education. (See Education Week, 11/23/94 and related story

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