Upon pitching his bill to repeal parts of California's Proposition 227, state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, downplayed the historical controversy about how to teach kids who don't speak English fluently.
"This is not to reopen old battles about bilingual education," Lara said during the Senate Education Committee hearing in April for Senate Bill 1174, the Multilingual Education for a 21st Century Economy Act. "There is new pedagogy, new strategies," he added.
Then he reopened an old battle about bilingual education.
"It's time for us to revisit Prop. 227 which, in a sense, created this linguistic tyranny by forcing our students who are already naturally endowed with multiple languages to only speak one."
Lara's words were like a red cape to foes of bilingual education, who reacted predictably by digging up the hot button sound bites of the 1990s about schools failing students in two languages.
Suddenly it seemed like old, if unpleasant, times when Californians were overly concerned with race and resentment.
It's unfortunate that this important discussion about multilingualism devolved into a rehashing of the bilingual education ban that California voters passed by 61 percent in 1998. Lara is correct that this state should champion and promote educational policies that encourage students to have fluency in more than one language. But a backtrack through the 20th century's educational failures without a clearly defined plan forward seems a dangerous way to get there.
If there is such plan, we haven't heard it yet. Despite several invitations last week, Lara declined to explain his bill to The Sacramento Bee editorial board. He shouldn't expect that legislation on such an important issue will slide through without serious discourse. The senator has an obligation to the public to engage in that discussion.
Before the Assembly follows the Senate and passes this bill, which would put the repeal to voters in 2016, legislators should insist on some answers from Lara and his supporters. They can start Wednesday when the Assembly Education Committee considers SB 1174.
The first question should be how to ensure that school districts don't backslide in their mandate of English proficiency for every student. Lara's bill removes the requirement that all non-English-speaking students go through one year of English immersion before being mainstreamed into regular English-language curriculum.
The bill replaces that requirement with squishy language: "School districts and county offices of education may determine the best language instruction methods and language acquisition programs to implement by consulting experts in the field, parents, and engaging local communities."
We're all for local control, but there's an awful lot of room in there for misinterpretation.
There are other troubling parts that deserve scrutiny as well, such as the provision that if 20 or more students in a grade at any school ask for a specific language class they must be accommodated or be allowed transfer to other schools. Is it wise to give students the power to direct curriculum without limits or guidelines?
Further, it's not even clear that ending the English immersion program would accomplish the goals that Lara seeks. Proposition 227, for all its flaws, never outlawed bilingualism, as Lara suggests. Nor is there compelling data that English immersion fails to work, only anecdotal information about how it hampers dual immersion programs. That contention is not backed up with details or figures, either.
The Sacramento Bee editorial board opposed Proposition 227 as a gamble based on an unproven theory, but still supports the necessity of English proficiency. Before tossing it out to voters again - along with all the ugly and divisive political rhetoric of 1998 - those questions need to be answered.
If this is a matter of creating more education programs so students can be multilingual, then let's have that discussion instead of taking this bad trip down memory lane.