All things take time to create. And great things like the city of Rome take a very long time. Likewise, here in the California State Legislature, grand endeavors often take more than one two-year legislative session cycle. The legislative process is convoluted and complex. Political principles often trump the rational. And sometimes, lawmakers just don’t take the time to get it.
For three years, I have tenaciously fought to legally define “heritage schools” – a.k.a. cultural language schools – in state code. These schools meet after school, on the weekends and during the summer, outside of the public school structure. They complement a child’s compulsory education and are bound by their commitment to teaching foreign language and history in an effort to help the student compete in an increasingly global economy and maintain California’s diversity and cultural heritage.
Heritage schools are more than “language schools,” and they play an integral role in our communities. They are a major source of language and heritage instruction at the K-12 level, as well as tutoring in other subjects. They help prepare students for courses in advanced language and literature at colleges and universities at no cost to the taxpayers. Some public schools even grant credit to students for classes taken at these heritage schools. In the state’s current fiscal environment, this seems like a very worthy avenue.
Up and down the state, the Chinese, Armenian, German, Russian, Jewish, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean communities all have these schools. These schools rely heavily on parent volunteers and the teachers and administrators often come from their native country and are highly skilled and educated. You would be surprised, in fact, to learn how many in the Capitol community attended a heritage school growing up or have kids who attend presently.
So then, what seems to be the problem?
I first learned of the schools’ legal plight when some in my district were closed by the state. Regrettably, absent legislation, more of these schools will be shut down. Currently, heritage schools operate under the radar. They are not under the state’s authority, and we don’t know how many are in operation within California’s borders. A snag occurs, however, when the Department of Social Services (DSS) becomes involved. Since heritage schools are not defined in state code as educational entities, DSS views them as childcare centers. Without proper child care licensing requirements, DSS creatively interprets existing law, or forces these schools to shut down, denying future generations of students the rich cultural opportunity these schools provide.
Over the years, heritage schools have sought out governmental authorities in attempts to comply with state law, but a clear distinct standard for these specific schools is lacking. DSS doesn’t know what to do with them and the schools find the process disjointed, confusing, arbitrary and difficult.
For three years, I have sought to educate state lawmakers about the need to legally define heritage schools. And for the most part, members from both sides of the aisle have responded in a positive way. Last year, I was pleased to work closely with Senator Leland Yee (D – San Francisco/San Mateo). Most legislators are attentive to the fact the issue needs to be addressed.
Despite that progress, we are still in search of a solution that balances the need for basic health and safety standards for heritage school students while also promoting their growth and continued existence for future generations. Heritage schools keep our kids proactive after school, help our public schools achieve higher test scores, and help us as a state and as a nation to be better prepared in a world economy. Yet we must acknowledge that most of these “schools” lack the facilities, funding, and other resources of a typical school or childcare center. Many of them are staffed by volunteers who hold a limited number of classes where ever they can. These are not childcare centers looking for a way to avoid important safety regulations; these are dedicated people who are devoted to the preservation of their cultural heritage and to help the kids excel academically. Any legislative proposal should not impose requirements that ultimately would force them to close their doors.
I have introduced a bill to clearly define heritage schools. Senate Bill 1116 will create an affidavit submission requirement for these schools; one that is modeled after and virtually the same as is required of private schools. For three years, I have explored different routes to determine how best to keep the doors of these heritage schools open. After countless discussions, policy hearings and debate, requiring heritage schools to file an affidavit with the Department of Education is the most logical path to freeing heritage schools from overbearing government regulations.
The requirement to file an affidavit ensures adequate protection for the students without placing an onerous licensing requirement on the schools. The measure offers heritage schools a pathway toward legality. It will not only clear up confusion but will reduce the burden to the state and provide a safer environment for students enrolled in the programs.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and sometimes sound state policy can’t be constructed without a multi-year crusade. Nevertheless, as Rome was worth building, heritage schools are worth saving.