Bill To Ease Mandate For Bilingual Education Under Attack in Conn.

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Hispanic activists in Connecticut are fighting a proposal by Gov. John G. Rowland to eliminate the state's mandate that schools provide eligible students with bilingual education.

Under current state law, a school must provide a bilingual program if it enrolls more than 20 students with limited proficiency in English who speak the same native language.

When the governor unveiled his budget last month, he proposed giving schools more flexibility in serving students with limited English. The new bill, based on his proposal, would allow districts to provide eligible students with "language assistance" that could include a bilingual program, translators, or other services.

While the bill is only the latest in a string of legislative proposals that would affect bilingual education in the state, some Hispanic groups see irony in the legislation's timing.

The new measure appears to defy a recommendation to strengthen bilingual programs put forward in January by a task force established by the Republican governor himself, said state Rep. Edna I. Garcia, a Democrat.

Ms. Garcia, who teaches limited-English students at a Bridgeport high school, sat on the Educational Improvement Panel, the 22-member task force Mr. Rowland created in response to last summer's state supreme court ruling in the desegregation lawsuit known as Sheff v. O'Neill.

The suit focused on segregation affecting the Hartford schools, where about half of the district's 24,000 students are Hispanic and 4,290 have limited proficiency in English, according to the state education department.

Flexibility Sought

Along with 14 other recommendations, the panel proposed to reduce racial and ethnic isolation in urban schools by strengthening bilingual education programs.

Specifically, it recommended that legislators encourage districts to expand bilingual programs to serve 3- and 4-year-olds, children younger than those now served by a bilingual programs in Connecticut. ("Desegregation Panel Offers Proposals to Conn. Legislators," Jan. 29, 1997.)

"I think bilingual education is one of the best integration programs," Ms. Garcia said.

A spokesman for the governor said the state's current law mandating bilingual education programs is too restrictive.

"A number of districts have made it clear over the years that they can provide bilingual students the needed services more efficiently, and at a lower cost, if those rules were relaxed," the governor's press secretary, Dean Pagani, said last week.

In his proposed budget, Mr. Rowland included about $2.2 million for bilingual education, slightly more than the current year's appropriation.

Many advocates for bilingual education in Connecticut say rewriting the law would erode services for the state's growing number of students with limited English skills.

"It leaves it wide open for districts to do whatever they say is appropriate," said Tom s Miranda, the principal at the Silvermine Elementary School, who also administers bilingual education programs in the 12,000-student Norwalk district.

'Watered Down'

Mr. Miranda said he worries that local boards that complain about the cost of bilingual education would cut back their programs if the were to become law.

"I think a lot of people look at bilingual programs as wasteful,'' he said. "But they're not looking at the long-term effects of educating these children.''

The bill would also drain resources from existing bilingual programs, he argued. By no longer requiring schools to have a minimum of 20 students to qualify for state bilingual aid, districts with even a few eligible children could receive such funding, he said.

"What's going to happen is if that $2.2 million is spread out around the state, it will mean the impact on each individual student will be less," he said. "It will be watered down."

The proposal dealing with bilingual education also comes as lawmakers consider three separate bills introduced last month that would make English Connecticut's official language, requiring the state to conduct all official business in English.

In an attempt to defeat these measures, Ms. Garcia said she has encouraged parents and supporters of bilingual education to write the governor and lawmakers expressing their opposition to the bills.

"This is not the first time that we've had to defend our right to speak a different language," she said. "We've had to do this again and again."

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