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
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
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
"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