English learners, California Board of Education, Senator Martha Escutia, SB 1769, Latino Caucus, Governor Schwarzenegger, SB 1769

Education Matters mast head
green line
July 29, 2006

Legislature fights English-learner book ban

Sandra Nichols
Email Sandra Nichols
  "Since we want all children to achieve to high standards and no child should be left behind, so to speak, surely we would want the same textbook in the hands of every child. But it's not that simple, as is frequently the case when English learners are concerned."

Did you hear the one about the California State Board of Education and their little problem of having a budget of zero dollars? It did not make the front page nor the funny pages, so let me fill you in.

It started back in April. The Board of Education dealt with the issue of whether English Learners should use the same textbooks as English-proficient students. Board members decided that they should. This may seem an easy decision, but there were ramifications and unexpected consequences.

Led by State Senator Martha Escutia, the Latino Caucus — those legislators who staunchly protect Latino interests — rallied Democrats in opposition to the decision. Since they have no direct control over the Board of Education, they took the only action they could. They eliminated all funding for the board in the state budget.

Though Schwarzenegger agreed with the board's decision, he then signed the budget in its entirety, gloating that he had accomplished the Herculean task of delivering the budget on time. It may seem odd that Arnold would prefer getting the budget done by deadline over ensuring that his Board of Education was funded. The politician's choice depends, of course, on which gives him bragging rights in an election year.

What happened next? The board president, Glee Johnson, resigned in an apparent huff over the denial of funding and the slap in the face that went with it. In this move, Glee forfeited her plum job as one of eleven members of the State Board of Education, which makes policy decisions affecting six million students in California public schools. A hefty responsibility with considerable clout!

Schwarzenegger agrees with the board he appointed that one size fits all in terms of textbooks for students, including English learners. He recently wrote an editorial extolling the virtues of English-only schooling about which he claims expertise on the basis of his own immigrant history. He proclaimed, "We must have only one standard for all our children and one way to test whether students are meeting that standard."

The Governor also surely wants his Board of Education staff to be paid. Yet he signed the budget that denies their funding and didn't insist that the Board's decision be honored. Mind you, the board expenses are being paid, albeit out of other funds, so no one in Sacramento is going hungry. In fact, it makes one wonder about the vast sums of money tucked away in the budgets of the top politicians that can be diverted to manipulate their way out of such a mess.

On the surface, the board's decision about the textbooks seems simple enough. Since we want all children to achieve to high standards and no child should be left behind, so to speak, surely we would want the same textbook in the hands of every child. But it's not that simple, as is frequently the case when English learners are concerned. The English-only forces and the bilingual advocates — whether Republicans, Democrats or whatever — all claim to want success for all students including those that did not learn English as their first language.

Textbook companies have developed special versions of texts that allow students not yet proficient in English to learn concepts and facts they are studying, as they advance in English language development systematically.

I can imagine the hot debate that ensued when board members deliberated on this issue. Those that favor English-only instruction would charge that others want to dumb down textbooks and limit English Learners' chances for a high level of success. Those who are more friendly to a multicultural, multilingual civilization would claim their opponents want to hold on to the advantage that being an English speaker brings.

Now on the table is a bill, SB 1769, written by Senator Escutia that gives back the funding for the board's staff, with the caveat that English learners get a chance to have the specially designed textbooks they need. What an interesting exercise of power, justice, and quid pro quo -— the give and take of politicians!

The board voted recently to oppose the bill, stubbornly turning down their own budget. That brings you up to date on the convoluted maneuvering. Want to support SB 1769? Send Arnold a letter immediately — FAX 916-445-4633.

The debate about how to educate English learners in California continues its relevance though study after study shows that Proposition 227, the landmark initiative created to limit Spanish-speaking students' access to bilingual classrooms, has not been effective in closing the achievement gap.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist for Santa Cruz City Schools, the Vice-President of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board, and the Coordinator of Special Education for Spreckels Union School District in Monterey County, Her opinions are not necessarily those of any school district.

© Sandra Nichols 2001 - 2006


Education Matters
World Wide Web