ANAHEIM—From Silvina Rubenstein’s view as a bilingual education advocate, the political picture is ominous: Proposition 187 passes, Democrats lose their state Assembly majority, and state officials plan to revamp their bilingual education policy.
For Rubenstein and 6,500 bilingual educators meeting here this week, the challenge is nothing short of impressing the legitimacy of their job on state officials and the public at large.
For some, the answer is to take on the critics head-on.
“Invite people into the classroom who are terrified that you are doing something horribly different and un-American,” Shelly Spiegel-Coleman said Thursday at the 20th annual conference of the California Association of Bilingual Educators.
The challenge from Spiegel-Coleman, coordinator of the conference, was met with a mix of hearty and timid chuckles. But most heads in the audience nodded in support.
“We are being very realistic in what our task is,” said Rubenstein, bilingual coordinator for the Montebello Unified School District and director of state and legislative affairs for the bilingual teachers group. “We need to educate our legislators. There is a misunderstanding that bilingual education has only one function, to teach children English.”
In fact, she said, bilingual educators’ mission is to make sure students learn core subjects like math, science and social studies while they are learning English. In some cases, that requires teachers instructing students in their native language. In other cases it means students get individual help from aides who know their language.
English only part of job
“We want to make sure children are acquiring English, but not at the expense of not learning anything else,” Rubenstein said.
But while Prop. 187 and the growing anti-immigrant sentiment have fueled the debate surrounding bilingual education, a burgeoning and diverse immigrant population has increased the debate’s complexity.
Educators at the conference, which started Wednesday and ends Saturday, spoke of the challenges facing bilingual education: the lack of funding for programs, a shortage of bilingual teachers and meager classroom materials.
More than 20 percent of students in California, about 1.2 million, speak another language and are learning English. In San Francisco, one-third of students are limited English-speakers, representing 79 languages and dialects.
“This is not a debate about Spanish vs. English,” said Adele Martinez, a retired bilingual education teacher from Sacramento. “It’s about a tool of learning.”
Jeannie Oakes, professor of education at UCLA, compared feelings toward immigrants today to those 100 years ago when migration from southern and eastern Europe began to eclipse that from western Europe. Then as now, immigration came to be seen as contributing to crime and urban decay.
“Schools were expected to solve these problems for the culture,” she said. From this the “English only” movement grew. Schools were expected to bring immigrants into the work force and make them productive members of society, to keep them from “wreaking havoc,” Oakes said.
Often, that meant steering immigrant students toward trades rather than professions. Academic education was something for the elite, white and wealthy, she said.
Today, not much has changed, she said.
Bilingual education “is seen as something for other people’s children,” Oakes told her audience. “There are some things that are thought of as needing to be done differently . . . separately.”
But Oakes said this begged the question: “Can separate ever be equal for children who are not white and wealthy? As we think about how to provide different educational opportunities, how do we do that without leaving the separateness of inequality for children who are not wealthy or white?”