Ina rare display of California bipartisanship, two ex-governors — Republican Pete Wilson and Democrat Gray Davis — sent out a letter last week urging lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to act stronger in support of higher academic standards, exit testing and especially second-language English learning in the public schools.
The timing of their statement is obviously a response to the Democrat-controlled Legislature’s cut-off of the entire $1.6 million staff budget of the state Board of Education, an 11-member body appointed by the governor to set overall policy direction for the California schools.
Deleting that funding from the 2007 budget was an act of retaliation pushed by the 27-member Latino Caucus in revenge for the board’s 6-4 defeat in April of a proposal to provide a full line of simplified bilingual textbooks for English-language learners.
The majority board opinion, backed by Schwarzenegger’s office, was that dual textbook versions would promote segregation of students into native English-speaker classes and separate English-learner classes.
Now Sen. Martha Escutia of Los Angeles County is sponsoring a bill that would restore the $1.6 million only if the board approves the English-learner textbooks. And the president of the Board of Education, Glee Johnson, resigned in protest because Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the state budget on June 30 — meeting the fiscal year deadline — instead of stonewalling until the board’s funding was replaced.
However, the governor did the right thing by approving California’s first on-time budget in six years, especially since the Board of Education is continuing to function. The board members, who do not get paid, have already met in July. Staff employees are being paid through the Department of Education and executive administrators are getting paychecks from the Governor’s Office.
The supporters of bilingual teaching do make one valid point. A statement signed by more than 30 Democratic legislators in January complained that there have not been any “new and innovative approaches to teaching English as a second language” since Proposition 227 banned bilingual instruction in 1998.
For more than 200 years, newcomers to the United States learned English and blended into American society by immersing themselves in the language at school and in daily life. There seems no good reason why this proven process should not continue. But if the education establishment expects immersion to succeed today for all foreign-born students, genuinely outstanding English-as-a-second-language programs must be provided.
Yet that is no excuse for going backwards and leaving kids stuck on the educational crutch of bilingualism. Strict academic standards are about everybody receiving at least the same basic education, so that they have a decent chance to succeed in life. Ex-governors Wilson and Davis are correct to insist that none of this should be watered down.