Sen. Ricardo Lara’s bill would be a setback for English learners

Congress is well-known for its inaction. But logjams may be preferable to what is transpiring in Sacramento, where the dominant Democrats are proposing bills that are dangerous, intrusive and indefensible, grievance devolving into gesture, and aimless Republicans can’t stop them.

But for the presence of Gov. Jerry Brown, Californians would likely and might yet be saddled with some nutty, unneeded laws.

First, there was Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, the effort to reintroduce racial and ethnic preferences in admissions to California’s public universities. There was virtually no supportive data for the assertions its proponents were making, yet the Senate approved it by a two-thirds margin.

Faulty reasoning, an absence of data and predictably awful outcomes played no role in whether the legislation was passed; there was unquestioned consensus among the majority, and the consensus prevailed.

But the separation of facts from legislative intent isn’t limited to the affirmative action debate. The Senate recently voted 27-8 in favor of Senate Bill 1174, which is aimed at restoring “bilingual education” in California schools.

The bill seeks to repeal sections of Proposition 227, which was enacted by 61 percent of the voters in 1998, and reformed a troubled system that seemed more about jobs for teacher’s aides than about educating kids. “Bilingual paraprofessionals” in California schools have declined from 30,000 in 1998-99 to 12,265 in 2013-14.

Proposition 227’s rationale, borne out by subsequent testing, was that the bilingual educational system shortchanged its kids because they ended up learning neither English nor Spanish well, and teachers weren’t imparting information well in either language.

The results of ending bilingual education, at least initially, are clear. During the first four years after the passage of Proposition 227, the academic performance of immigrant children who were taught in English roughly doubled.

English learners in English immersion classes academically outperformed their counterparts in holdover bilingual education programs in reading, math, language and spelling by margins ranging from 24 percent to 187 percent.

The data subsequent to the first four years’ reporting continue to demonstrate the wisdom of the change in policy. From 2006 through 2012, more than 42 percent of the 1.2 million English learners in California scored at the “advanced” or “early advanced” levels, an increase of more than 9 percent in the space of six years.

Since 2003, English learners in California who attain English proficiency have increased from 30 percent to 49 percent (among those with five years or more in language instructional programs).

In Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, the percentage of English learners who meet the federal proficiency standards in English arts increased from 16.7 percent in 2003 to 32.1 percent in 2011, and in math from 25.4 percent in 2003 to 43 percent in 2011. Significant, positive gains in both areas.

But, facts once again seem irrelevant to the debate. The legislation seems more a function of ideological muscle-flexing than serious problem solving, English acquisition is not the goal.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles-area Democrat and the bill’s author, recently said he wanted to counter the “ linguistic tyranny” that having to learn English imposed – “forcing our kids to learn just one language.”

Viewing the issues of education in an adversarial light (“tyranny”) results in rhetorical hyperbole such as conflating “bilingual” education, which Proposition 227 severely limited and which had limited success, and “dual immersion” programs, which Lara often points to, as if they were the same.

The latter has some 50,000 students in California, is doing well, and suffers from the challenge of “finding quality teachers interested and trained in immersion methodology.” Dual immersion programs are not at issue, and SB 1174 does not address their needs; it “gestures” in their direction.

Our Legislature too often seems to suffer from a lack of seriousness, a penchant for grandstanding instead of data analysis, and a willingness to assert itself where politicians simply aren’t needed or don’t belong.

It is up to Brown, the press and the public to teach our representatives that division and partisanship aren’t the remedies – witness the Congress – but reflection, care and modesty of approach are. Gestures just won’t cut it.