Original URL:  http://www.sacbee.com/content/politics/story/5430811p-6416468c.html

School plan seeks 2nd language for all
December 1, 2002
Jim Sanders, Sacramento Bee

The proposal sets bilingual proficiency as a statewide goal.

In rapidly changing California, where minority students are the majority, a new master plan for education would change academic standards to signal that learning to speak and read only English isn't good enough anymore. Every child would take extensive instruction in a foreign language -- and be expected to speak it fluently -- under a proposal supported by an 18-member committee of lawmakers and scheduled to be introduced as legislation early next year.

For years, California immigrants have been required to learn English, but the new plan proposes the reverse as well: Let's all speak two languages.

"To function in California's multicultural setting, as well as in a global society, children need not only fluency in English but also proficiency in at least one other language," reads an explanation from education experts who developed the proposal.

Supporters tout bilingualism as a way to promote cultural understanding and job readiness, but critics call the idea a costly pipe dream that could reduce time spent on reading, mathematics and other educational basics.

The proposal is part of the new California Master Plan for Education, a three-year effort designed as a blueprint for future school legislation.

Students would be required to begin studying a foreign language in early elementary grades and master it -- along with English -- before graduating from high school.

Legislators will be asked in coming months to approve the concept. Implementation would occur in phases, perhaps over 10 years or more. With the state facing a projected budget shortfall of up to $30 billion, nobody expects any allocation of funds to expand foreign language instruction for several years.

Gov. Gray Davis has not taken a position on the plan, whose costs are not yet known. "I think every child should have the experience of learning a foreign language," said Lorraine D'Ambruoso, executive director of the California Language Teachers Association. "This country is rich in its diversity. Nowhere else has democracy succeeded with so many cultures."

Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable, called the dual-language proposal "desirable and do-able." "It's important enough that it ought to be an objective, and we ought to find a way to do it," he said. "Perhaps start on a small scale. ... From a business standpoint, it will be increasingly important for young people to speak a second language.

But Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a Virginia-based group that opposes bilingual education and is lobbying Congress to make English the nation's official language, said the California proposal "puts the focus on political correctness rather than basic education."

"Learning a second language is a good thing, but there are only so many hours in a school day," Boulet said. "We seem to have decided in this country that anything we ask of immigrants also has to be asked of everyone else. ... Before we start spending a lot more money on foreign language, let's make sure English instruction is working well for all students."

Bruce Fuller, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, said that "in a multicultural society, it's not a radical thought that all kids be bilingual." Children in France, Germany and many other parts of the world routinely grow up speaking more than one language, he said.

Fuller predicted that California eventually will adopt such a requirement.

"But I think it will be controversial because the political structure in California still swivels around white, suburban voters to a great extent," he said. "It may tap into feelings that somehow our anglo-American culture or white suburban culture is changing too rapidly."

Less than half of California's 6 million students are white. Latinos make up the largest chunk, 45 percent; followed by whites, 34 percent; and Asians and African Americans, 8 percent apiece, state records show.

Roughly one of every four California students -- 1.5 million statewide -- do not speak English as their primary language.

The next 10 years should see the number of Latino students rising and the number of white students falling -- until the former outnumber the latter by nearly two to one, records show.

California's Master Plan for Education -- containing 56 recommendations on a wide variety of issues -- does not address which foreign languages should be offered, how many instructional minutes should be required or how many new bilingual teachers would be needed.

Asking all students to master a foreign language is likely to exacerbate a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers, particularly in Chinese, Japanese, Russian and other languages not commonly taught statewide, officials said.

Ann Bancroft, spokeswoman for state Secretary of Education Kerry Mazzoni, said any evaluation of the proposal must include not only its cost but also its potential impact on efforts to improve student performance in key academic subjects.

"Of course it would be valuable for all students to learn a second language. ... But we're asking a lot of schools, and our first priority in the next couple years will be to complete work that has been showing progress in raising standards," Bancroft said.

California currently requires all students to learn English, but not necessarily other languages. High school graduation requires a year of instruction in foreign language or visual or performing arts.

The hurdle is higher for students hoping to attend the University of California or the California State University systems, both of which require applicants to have taken at least two years of classes in a foreign language. The new master plan proposal focuses on performance, not years of instruction. Every student would begin instruction in a foreign language in early elementary grades and be expected to speak and read it fluently by the end of 12th grade.

"I think it's a good idea," said Allison Nowell, 17, of McClatchy High School in Sacramento. "I took Spanish in my freshman and sophomore years, but even if I'd taken it for all four years, there's no way I would have learned all of it."

Lindsey Vernon, 18, who graduated from McClatchy last year, fears the proposal may ask too much from students.

"I think they have enough to do in high school now," she said.

The plan stops short of proposing that foreign language be added to exit examinations that students must pass to receive high school diplomas.

Kathleen Whalen, a former high school principal now serving as chief of staff to Sacramento city schools superintendent Jim Sweeney, applauded the bilingual goal but said some parents and teachers already worry that heavy emphasis on reading and mathematics leaves too little time for other classes.

"They're concerned that children don't have enough exposure to art, music,  science and social studies," Whalen said. "Schools are squeezing those classes in the best they can to ensure that kids are more well-rounded. But to add another (required) course would be really hard on the time schedule."

Statewide, instruction in more than a dozen foreign languages is available,  primarily in high schools. But the quantity and type of foreign language classes vary from district to district. Spanish attracts nearly 70 percent of the students who sign up for any foreign language class.

Immigrant students who do not speak English are required to master it. The new proposal wouldn't change that, but it could provide additional opportunities for students to fine-tune skills in their native language, too, supporters said.

Ron Unz, whose successful Proposition 227 ballot measure in 1998 required that most California immigrant students be taught English through a process called immersion, called the master plan proposal "pie-in-the-sky nonsense" from politicians with no clue about cost or practicality.

"By the time problems develop and the plan can't be met, most of these people are termed out," Unz said. "Two languages are better than one -- and three are better than two. But it seems to me that if students are having trouble passing tests in one language, asking them to learn two or three is a little silly."

The Bee's Jim Sanders can be reached at (916) 326-5538 or jsanders@sacbee.com.


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