LOS ANGELES -- Bilingual education, created to ease the assimilation of millions of immigrant children into American society, has suffered a major setback in its largest educational stronghold. Gov. George Deukmejian last week vetoed an extension of the state bilingual law, and educators say his action reflects growing public and professional discontent with the program.
The veto leaves the Los Angeles Unified School District with significantly less authority to teach in a foreign language in thousands of classes that do not already have qualified bilingual teachers, a state attorney and the district's bilingual program administrator said.
Since Los Angeles has more pupils in bilingual programs than any other U.S. school district, the change is expected to have a substantial impact on the national debate on the value of bilingual education and on congressional efforts to modify the use of U.S. funds in such programs.
Officials of U.S.ENGLISH, a citizens group favoring more classroom instruction in English, hailed the California development as a logical step following the overwhelming victory of a 1986 ballot measure making English the official state language.
Until now, nearly half of the more than 159,000 school children with limited English here relied on bilingual teachers' aides and teachers who take after-school foreign language classes. But Allan Keown, a state Education Department attorney, said the veto means Los Angeles has lost explicit authority to force teachers to learn a second language.
Before it expired July 1, the bilingual education law required a bilingual teacher in any class in which 10 or more children did not speak English. There are 6,000 such classes, and 3,300 have bilingual teachers. Ramiro Garcia, the assistant superintendent in charge of bilingual education here, said those teachers would continue to teach immigrant children in their native language.
Garcia said that rather than allow Spanish-speaking teachers' aides to teach the remaining 2,700 classes, he would encourage teachers to conduct their classes in English and allow the aides to help the non-English-speaking students.
School board president Rita Walters said the board will consider several ways to compensate for the veto and did not rule out rules requiring some teachers to learn Spanish or change jobs. But critics of the bilingual program within the 21,000-member United Teachers-Los Angeles (UTLA) union have forced a referendum next week asking the district to move toward English-immersion classes for all immigrants and cut back more on instruction in Spanish.
Keown, who is helping to prepare new bilingual guidelines in the wake of the governor's veto, said districts may assume that "there will be more discretion and flexibility" in bilingual programs, although federal court decisions and local-federal agreements will still require special efforts to help young immigrants adjust.
School administrators here have required many reluctant teachers who spoke only English to join the bilingual program. To avoid being transferred, the teachers promised to learn a foreign language within seven years and in the meantime rely heavily on a bilingual aide. Usually, UTLA President Wayne Johnson said, the language is Spanish, since most parents from Asia, the other major immigrant group here, want their children in all-English classes.
"I had to turn my class almost entirely over to my aide, and I never knew if she was giving proper instruction or not," said Sally Peterson, a third-grade teacher at Glenwood Elementary School. When Peterson's principal announced in March that the bilingual program would force job changes for 24 teachers at her school, she joined with several others to form the Learning English Advocates Drive and put the group's plan for English immersion on the UTLA ballot.
The bilingual program, the group charged in the union newspaper, "contradicts professional ethics" by "not allowing the child to achieve the goal of English fluency."
The UTLA Chicano Education Committee quickly responded by preparing a referendum endorsing bilingual education. It noted several studies, including a March report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, that said initial bilingual education appeared to improve students' English in the long run. Votes on both measures are due Friday.
Jim Franco, chairman of the Chicano Education Committee, said he too is disturbed by the amount of control given to bilingual aides under the current system and blamed the district for not offering teachers better incentives to learn Spanish. A fully certified bilingual teacher here earns an extra $1,000 a semester. Without proficient Spanish-language instruction in mathematics, science and other subjects, Franco said, Latin American children "will fall further behind."
Deukmejian, a Republican, vetoed a bilingual-law extension last year and again July 24 despite compromise features that would have relaxed requirements that teachers learn Spanish and required parental approval for enrollment in a bilingual class. He noted that the state still will provide money for the 525,000 students thought to need bilingual education but that "it is better to allow each school district to fashion its own" program.
U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett and several Republicans in Congress have called for similar flexibility in using immersion programs, which emphasize English instruction with some help in another language when a student needs it.
The House has passed a reauthorization of a federal program for bilingual seed money that leaves traditional bilingual funding at the same level but grants 75 percent of any new money to other approaches. A proposal by Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) would increase the funds for English immersion and other methods from 4 percent to 25 percent.