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Board Relaxes Bilingual-Ed. Policy in Calif.

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The California board of education has given school districts more flexibility in how they teach students who speak little or no English, a move that may discourage the use of bilingual education in the state with more such students than any other in the nation.

At the same time that the board was debating the policy, wrangling over credentialing rules for teachers of limited-English-proficient students was pointing up sharp divisions on the issue among California teachers.

And Delaine Eastin, a former Democratic Assembly member who was elected the state schools superintendent last year, has come under fire from some bilingual-education advocates. They view her support of the state board's new policyand some of her reported comments on bilingual educationas a letdown.

The developments show that the politically charged debate over how best to educate California's 1.2 million L.E.P. students--who make up one quarter of its enrollment--is very much alive.

Some national observers suggest that the events in California dramatize a larger backlash against bilingual education.

"Bilingual education is very clearly under attack in many other quarters," said James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Local Flexibility

The California state board unanimously adopted the new policy at its July 14 meeting after months of public hearings and deliberations. It is a far cry from the original proposal floated last year, which would have emphasized that native-language instruction is not required. Some advocates of bilingual education said that draft would have effectively dismantled such programs and violated state law. (See Education Week, 12/14/94.)

While the state's bilingual-education law was allowed to expire in 1987, its language provided that its "general purposes" would remain in effect even if it were not renewed. That section of the law calls for students to receive primary-language instruction "when necessary" to insure them equal opportunity for academic achievement.

The new policy essentially restates that provision, but emphasizes that the board intends to encourage districts to move L.E.P. students into English-language classes as quickly as possible.

It also states that the board intends to grant districts waivers from providing native-language instruction if they can show that students will learn English and will not fall behind academically. But it does not spell out exactly how the districts would have to demonstrate that.

The policy also directs the state education department to focus its compliance monitoring on the programs' results. The department has been accused by some districts of illegally imposing requirements on them and dissuading them from adopting more English-only teaching approaches.

A Matter of Emphasis

While the document has made headlines in California, the policy's impact on schools is difficult to predict. According to the state education department, only 28 percent of California's L.E.P. students were being taught in their native languages in at least two subjects during the 1993-94 school year.

And the waivers are not new; about 80 districts are now operating under waivers exempting them from providing native-language instruction for some or all of their L.E.P. students. The real policy change, observers say, is a matter of emphasis.

"Districts who have strong primary-language programs will continue in that direction," said Silvina Rubinstein, the director of state and legislative affairs for the California affiliate of the national bilingual educators' group.

But the policy may give schools disenchanted with bilingual education, or under pressure from local critics, the chance to drop it.

"This is an important symbol districts can use as cover," said Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University and a former president of the state board. "The board is sending a pretty strong message here."

A spokeswoman for U.S. English, an organization that supports making English the nation's official language and is critical of bilingual education, predicted that more states will move in California's direction.

Many observers noted that the bilingual-education debate must be viewed through the lens of a post-Proposition 187 California. The controversial measure, championed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, would deny illegal immigrants most social services, including public education. Although voters approved it last year, the courts have delayed its implementation. (See Education Week, 11/23/94 and related story.)

More recently, the Governor has supported a proposed ballot measure that would ban racial preferences in government programs, and the state board of regents voted to drop affirmative action in college admissions. (See related story.)

Political Climate

In this political climate, the policy on limited-English students--the product of a state school board made up of Mr. Wilson's appointees--has been hailed by many as a compromise. Superintendent Eastin, who says the policy will help schools focus on results instead of methodology, is among them.

"We have to be honest enough with one another to say, when something isn't working, it's time to re-examine it," Ms. Eastin was quoted as saying in a May 22 Los Angeles Times article. "There has to be a point at which we bite the bullet and say, 'At least, they have to learn English.'"

(See education.

In an interview last month, Ms. Eastin said that many of her remarks were taken out of context. She maintained that her position has not changed and that she continues to support bilingual education--as long as students learn English and study the regular school curriculum, and, whenever possible, retain their native languages.

"I've tried to refine my position and foster consensus," she said, calling herself a "realist."

"I'm trying to lessen some of the hostilities I see in California right now," Ms. Eastin said.

That hostility has also manifested itself in a dispute among California teachers.

Union Squabble

Last year, the powerful, 240,000-member California Teachers Association won approval of a bill allowing many teachers to side-step an updated credentialing system for teachers of L.E.P. students. (See related story

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