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Bilingual Ed.: Yea or Nay?

California's ever-active direct democracy is at it again. The most-talked-about voter initiative this year would end bilingual education in the state.

Polls indicate support for this step: 76 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats favor it, according to a survey by the Field polling organization. Intriguingly, two-thirds of Hispanics contacted also back it.

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That finding indicates the concern many Hispanic parents feel about their children's grasp of English. They believe, rightly, that it's very hard to get ahead economically without a command of the majority language.

That belief, actually, is not necessarily at odds with bilingual education. But what started out as a transitional program to sustain academic progress through use of a child's native tongue, while learning to master English, has often shifted emphases. The stress became maintaining the native language (and culture), rather than learning the new one.

The backers of the June 2 ballot issue argue that Hispanic students - and the children of California's myriad other ethnic communities - will be better off immersed in English. And the state would be better off without the huge funding and staffing problems caused by a mandate to teach all children, at least for a while, in their family's native language.

Most important is the need to remember the experience of the individual student. The sink-or-swim approach of the past meant that most kids with no command of English simply sank in the mainstream classroom. That's a cost a state (or a nation) full of new immigrants can't bear.

The lead-up to June voting should provide Californians with some solid information about the track record of bilingual education - its successes and drawbacks. Then, if voters decide to end it, there need to be some well-thought-out alternatives at hand.

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