OLYMPIA—For better or worse, Californians – and their politics – have a tendency to migrate north.
That’s why Washington educators, lawmakers and political observers are bracing for a backlash against bilingual education after California voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a measure to eliminate such programs in their schools.
But others see a chance to overhaul an outdated method of teaching that holds children back.
“It would not surprise me to see something similar introduced here,” said Teresa Moore, a spokeswoman for the Washington Education Association. “It’s a concept with a lot of support in this state.”
While the 60-40 vote in California to gut the state’s 30-year bilingual
education system hasn’t sparked an instant petition drive in Washington, it’s come close.
State Sen. Harold Hochstatter, a Moses Lake Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he is starting work on a measure for Washington that mirrors the California plan.
“I’ll get the text of (Proposition) 227 and get our lawyers to craft that into something that squares with our program,” Hochstatter said. “I don’t want to tamper with anyone’s culture. But in my view, bilingual education has been a tragic failure.”
Hochstatter, one of the legislature’s most conservative members, and other opponents of bilingual education say the experiences of earlier generations show children can pick up English quickly.
They argue that the current system condemns children to a linguistic limbo in which they fall behind their English-schooled peers.
Supporters of bilingual programs say they may not be perfect, but the sink-or swim solution adopted in California, which would essentially replace bilingual
education with an English immersion program after one year of transition classes, will push a vulnerable population into dangerous waters.
“I’m a product of bilingual education,” said state Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, a Seattle Democrat born to Mexican migrant farm workers. “I could not learn English overnight.”
Terry Bergeson, the state superintendent of public instruction, said she fully expects a plan to emerge next year for dismantling Washington’s $29
million bilingual education program, and she’s already mobilizing for a fight.
“It’s a very volatile issue,” she said, adding that if the program was
eliminated, “a lot of children would be delayed in their academic progress. We’d lose more kids who would give up and quit school.”
Just over 54,000 of Washington’s nearly 1 million public school students are enrolled in bilingual education programs, Bergeson said.
In Seattle, there are almost 10,000 bilingual students, about 21 percent of
the overall district enrollment.
Statewide, these students speak a total of 109 languages. By far, most of the children speak Spanish. The other major languages spoken include Russian,
Vietnamese, Cambodian, Ukrainian and Korean.
Bilingual education is mandated by Washington state law for students whose
native language is not English, and school districts receive $549 per child a
year. But parents can opt out if they want.
Unlike California’s old system, Washington’s bilingual programs are
transitional, designed to get students into all-English classes within three
years while keeping them current in their studies. Most involve English as
second language classes, which are taught in English with support available to
students in their native languages.
Helen Valdez, a state school administrator who oversees the bilingual
programs, said it’s a misconception that teaching children in their primary
language while they learn English somehow holds them back.
Valdez thinks California’s new one-year program of immersing children in
English language classes would be very difficult for many students.
But opponents say that reasoning is flawed.
John Carlson, chairman of the anti-affirmative action Initiative 200,
compared bilingual learning to preferential hiring and college admissions based on race or gender. Both, he said are antiquated notions of a bygone era.
“The most important revelation from the California vote is the wide chasm
between elites and the mainstream,” Carlson said. “The elites, cloistered in
school districts and in academia and the civil rights organizations, were
pushing these programs. It’s the same dynamic at work with racial preferences.
And both are ideas that are going away.”
Eugene Hogan, chairman of the Political Science Department at Western
Washington University in Bellingham, said Washington state, which is 88.5
percent white, may not follow California on this issue.
“I have a feeling that Washington state – because of the demographics here – may not be as receptive to this type of initiative,” Hogan said. “I don’t think most people here ever really felt this was a problem.”
English-only measures have emerged in recent years, but none seems to have
resonated with voters or lawmakers.
Last year, a bill that would have made English the official language of
Washington never got out of committee.
Another measure that would have given parents more power to pull their kids
from bilingual programs never came up for a floor vote.
In 1996, an initiative that would have made English Washington’s only legal
language for conducting state and local business failed to get
enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
And when Ron Taber, a Thurston County millionaire and failed candidate for
superintendent of public instruction called Spanish “the language of doormen,
dishwashers and fruit pickers” in voicing his opposition to bilingual education during the 1996 campaign, his statement didn’t win him a bit of political
Nonetheless, California’s vote, which is already being challenged in court as unconstitutional, may revive the issue, said Roger Valdez, a board member of
Seattle-based Sea Mar, health clinics that serve the Hispanic community.
“We all agree that kids need to learn English,” Valdez said. “But this is a
heavy-handed approach that’s telling a kid to learn English, without giving any kind of support or backup to do that. It’s like telling a person who can’t walk who is in a wheelchair: ‘Just walk and we’re not going to do anything for you.’ It takes time.”
This report includes information from The Associated Press.
P-I reporter Rachel Zimmerman can be reached at 360-943-3990 or