Calif. Board Revises Policy for LEP Students

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The California school board unanimously approved a new policy last week that grants districts maximum flexibility over how they educate the state's 1.4 million students whose native language is not English.

Delaine Eastin

The advisory policy is as significant for what it does not say as for what it does. It urges districts to adopt sound programs that rapidly develop students' English proficiency and that provide access to a challenging curriculum. But it does not tell districts what methodology to use to achieve such results.

"California's children will no longer be trapped by the failed bilingual education policies of the past," board President Yvonne W. Larsen said in a statement. "Now, all of California's children will have a better opportunity for academic success."

Sen. Deirdre Alpert

The move comes less than two months before voters will decide the fate of Proposition 227, a statewide ballot measure that could virtually eliminate bilingual education in California schools.

Some political and education experts speculate that the board's action--along with a bill moving through the legislature that sponsors say would strengthen accountability in exchange for greater local flexibility--may undercut support for the initiative by the time votes are cast on June 2.

Some bilingual education supporters fear the state board's vote, by weakening state encouragement of bilingual education, will allow limited-English-proficient students to fall behind. But observers on both sides of the issue agree that the move highlights the state's complex and shifting bilingual education landscape.

Interpretations Collide

That landscape may shift more if Sen. Deirdre Alpert has her way. The Democratic lawmaker's bill, SB 6, cleared a key lower-house committee April 1 and may hit the Assembly floor by month's end, where it faces an uphill battle. The Senate approved the bill last year.

The bill would allow each district to determine the type of services that would most benefit its LEP students based on the local population and the resources available. It would also require districts to test LEP students regularly and to revise their programs if, after two years, those students failed to demonstrate academic achievement at the district average.

California's bilingual education law expired in 1987, but the law's "general purposes" remained in effect and have continued to provide the basis for state policy. Since then, the state has used the old law's requirement that LEP students be taught in their primary languages "when necessary" to ensure equal opportunity for academic achievement. That policy generally served to promote bilingual education programs, especially for students with almost no English skills.

But that interpretation was thrown into a tailspin by a ruling and judgment handed down in February and March by Superior Court Judge Ronald B. Robie.

His ruling came in a lawsuit involving the 29,000-student Orange Unified district near Los Angeles, which last year won a state board waiver exempting it from having to provide native-language instruction. The district instead adopted an English-immersion approach. Hispanic parents and civil rights advocates challenged the program change in court.

In his ruling, Judge Robie prohibited the state board from issuing such waivers, but policymakers and observers disagree about what his other findings mean.

The state board says that when the bilingual law expired, so did the provision on primary-language instruction, making waivers unnecessary. That interpretation led the board to scrap its old LEP policy in March.

The state's elected schools chief, lawyers for the California education department, and some civil rights groups, however, maintain that the court ruling upholds the requirement for primary-language instruction when needed. That, they say, is why the court called on the state board to stop granting waivers.

'Work in Progress'

"While I share the board's emphasis on local control, state law and the Robie court decision still require that comprehensive educational services be provided to limited-English-proficient students, including, when necessary, primary-language instruction," State Superintendent Delaine Eastin said in a statement responding to the board's action.

In addition to passing a new LEP policy, the board last week repealed a number of bilingual education regulations. Before the rules changes become final, the state office of administrative law must approve them. And board members vowed to revisit the rules once the state picture on bilingual education becomes clearer.

In the coming months, the state board will likely take a wait-and-see attitude before it makes further bilingual education changes, watching the legislature and the June 2 election outcome, said Bill Lucia, the board's executive director. "This is still a work in progress," he said.

In related news about Proposition 227, a panel that advises President Clinton on Hispanic education voted April 3 to oppose the ballot measure.

The President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans said in a statement that the initiative "is contrary to the best research and practices for academic success and English language acquisition."

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