Original URL:  http://www.sacbee.com/content/news/education/story/6068985p-7025237c.html

Caucus: English learners cheated
Sacramento Bee February 6, 2003
Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh says Latino kids are being shortchanged.

By Aurelio Rojas -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Thursday, February 6, 2003

The chairman of the Legislature's Democratic Latino Caucus on Wednesday accused the state Board of
Education of being out of touch with the needs of English learners.

Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh said he will introduce legislation to remove conditions the board set for classes that teach reading in Spanish to receive new federal funds. Unless the conditions are met, education officials say, bilingual classes aren't eligible for money from the No Child Left Behind Act.

"These guys obviously don't get it," said Firebaugh, of South Gate, whose 24-member caucus has become a growing force in the 120-member Legislature. "They don't understand that a vast number of kids in California are English learners and the policies they hand down have to be reflective of that reality."

Board of Education President Reed Hastings disputed Firebaugh's assertion that the board, whose members are selected by Gov. Gray Davis, is insensitive to the needs of the 1.5 million English learners in the state.

About 10 percent receive instruction in a language other than English under a waiver process established by Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot measure that abolished most bilingual education programs.

Hastings noted that any classroom in an eligible school may apply for the federal funds, provided the classroom is implementing the full state-adopted reading program in English.

"We think every child in California needs 2 1/2 hours of English language instruction (daily) to be successful on English language standards," Hastings said. "Apparently, Mr. Firebaugh doesn't think so."

But Firebaugh said that would require classes to have two sets of books -- in English and Spanish -- and "during these difficult economic times, that's untenable."

"They are being duplicitous and disingenuous about offering these classrooms the opportunity to draw down these dollars," Firebaugh said.

Under the federal act, California will receive more than $130 million each year beginning this year to improve reading in kindergarten through third grade.

The Bush administration did not require that the money be spent on instruction in English. But Theresa Garcia, Davis' assistant secretary for education, said the act requires that the funds be spent on programs aligned to state standards.

Bilingual education advocates said they were not aware of the conditions imposed by the state until the Board of Education posted them on its Web site.

News of the regulations raised the ire of Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy Inc., the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and California Rural Legal Assistance.

In response, the board removed restrictions on the number of Proposition 227 waiver classrooms allowed in an eligible school.

Firebaugh said a bill he will introduce would repeal the existing conditions. Bilingual advocates said they are considering a court challenge.

But Garcia warned that such actions could cost the state the federal money.

Firebaugh, whose legislation to change how members of the Board of Education are chosen was vetoed by the governor last year, questioned the panel's competency to address the cultural needs of Latinos.

Latinos account for more than 40 percent of the children in public schools; one member of the 11-member Board of Education is Latino.

"The composition of the board has to change," Firebaugh said.

Board members have defended their ability to represent all California children.

"We have tried to be very responsive to the caucus," Hastings said. "We pointed out that our earlier draft policy could be improved and we made substantial improvements."