Other states have watched cautiously from the shadows as California has taken bold steps on highly charged civil-rights legislation, rolling back health care for illegal aliens and affirmative action. Now, for the third time in three years, the state with the highest immigrant population in the United States is poised to take another step.
Pushed by parents who say their local schools do not give students the English language skills they need to go to college or get jobs, several Orange County school districts are throwing out long-used bilingual programs in favor of programs that immerse students in English.
"What is happening in Orange County could be the start of a national trend," says Jorge Amselle, spokes-man for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative Washington think tank that examines issues of race and public policy. "It's already affecting the way other counties in California are considering their bilingual programs. If more districts follow suit, it can't help but impact other parts of the country."
Indeed, it may already have done so. Two weeks ago, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) proposed an overhaul of the state's bilingual education. Governor Weld wants to limit students to three years of bilingual education, screen applicants to the program for suitability, and set stricter standards for bilingual teachers.
While California's initiatives have come on a more local level, its overall situation is perhaps more pressing. Home to half the nation's immigrants, California counts 1.3 million K-12 students who are not fluent in English, a quarter of the total state enrollment. Federal law holds that schools should help limited-English proficient (LEP) students understand the curriculum but lets schools try a variety of techniques. The nation's 10 most-populous states have some kind of mandate for bilingual education and the overwhelming majority of such programs are funded with state and local money.
Since the beginning of 1996, three southern California school districts have taken advantage of state exemptions to California's bilingual teaching laws, and two more larger districts are poised to do so. With this backdrop, Orange Unified will be the largest district yet to petition the state board of education to waive its bilingual program. The district has 28,000 students and a sizable Spanish-speaking population.
"We Americans need to have a common language if we are going to function as a united, single society," says Martin Jacobson, president of the seven-member Orange Unified School Board.
Noting that the county has 40 other ethnic groups in significant numbers, Mr. Jacobson says his schools can no longer justify existing, native-language instruction programs that are mostly in Spanish.
"If we continue to have these bilingual programs in Spanish, what right do we have to deny all these other groups programs in their native tongue?" asks Jacobson. "If we did that, we would have a society where there are so many different languages that it will be impossible for businesses to have a common language."
The Orange Unified board, which historically has been divided over most of its decisions, voted 7 to 0 on April 17 in favor of applying for waivers. In support of their decision, they said there was little or no conclusive evidence that current bilingual classes were successful in teaching students core classes - math, sciences, and social studies.
But many parents, teachers of bilingual education and others are openly picketing school board meetings and petitioning the state department of education to disallow the waivers. Many say such reforms would abandon LEP children who need the most help.
"I am afraid that when and if the state OKs the waiver, our classes will go back to the same kind of unmanageable mixes we had before we got bilingual ed," says Alicia Carter a certifier of bilingual teachers at Prospect Elementary School. Such problems caused white flight in previous years, she says. "It will be difficult to teach classes that are fully mixed with different ethnic groups."
Others note that a war of academic studies is already afoot, with both sides confusing the public.
"Supporters of this are putting forward the false premise that English is not being learned fast enough," adds Magaly Lavadenz, director of legislative affairs for the California Association for Bilingual Education. "Studies show that immigrants are now learning English faster and losing their native tongues faster than in the past."
At the center of the bilingual debate is a disagreement over two criteria fundamental to bilingual education: Students must have equal access to the core classes; and students must develop proficiency in English. Bilingual supporters maintain "equal access" means that core classes must be taught in Spanish, critics maintain that they can be taught in English.
Programs "have a tremendous amount of flexibility as long as they show they can do these two things," says Francisca Sanchez, bilingual specialist for the state department of education. "The state's concern is not how they do these two things, but that they do them."
BILINGUAL EDUCATION IN THE US
* 2.8 million elementary and secondary students in the US are limited-English proficient (LEP). LEP students in the US would have difficulty understanding an all English curriculum without additional assistance.
* The number of LEP students has increased nearly 100 percent in the past decade and is expected to continue.
* Less than 1 in 5 teachers who currently serve LEP students are certified to teach LEP students.
Source: Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Affairs - US Department of Education.