When Elva Chacon’s son started kindergarten in Anaheim, Calif., he was placed in a class with other children who spoke Spanish and a teacher who taught mostly in Spanish.
Five years later, he still couldn’t speak English well.
When Chacon’s daughter started kindergarten, Chacon insisted she be placed in English-only classes. Now, her son is 17 and struggles with English, but her 15-year-old daughter is fluent in English and gets straight A’s.
“I can teach them Spanish at home but they go to school to learn English,” says Chacon, a Mexican immigrant housekeeper whose children were born in California.
Spanish at home, English in school — that sums up the thinking behind “English for the Children,” a controversial ballot initiative that would mandate English-only in the public schools of California, the state that has the nation’s largest number of schoolchildren who can’t speak English.
Some of the strongest supporters of the initiative are Hispanic parents like Elva Chacon who believe their children will never master English any other way.
The initiative, which supporters hope to place on the June 1998 ballot, would virtually abolish what educators call “bilingual education.” Under that teaching method, non-English-speaking children initially are taught mostly in their primary language, usually Spanish, while gradually being taught more and more in English over a period of years.
‘We’ve got kids who still barely speak English’
Educators all over the nation are watching what happens in California. Of the nation’s 46.4 million public schoolchildren, about 3.2 million students speak little or no English — double the number in 1986-87. Most of these students are in states with large immigrant populations, including Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Defenders of bilingual education say this approach allows children to keep current with other academic subjects in Spanish while also becoming fluent in English — thus becoming “bilingual.”
Although the goal is to move students to English fluency quickly, that hasn’t happened in California. Each year, only 6% of students who started out speaking only Spanish are judged fluent enough to move to classes where all instruction is in English. And it costs California taxpayers $ 319 million a year to educate about 410,000 schoolchildren in bilingual classrooms.
In California, one in five of the state’s 5.3 million schoolchildren speak a language other than English, most often Spanish. About 34% of those children are in bilingual classes; the rest are in English-only classes or in classes where Spanish is spoken occasionally.
“Bilingual education is the single most crazy, Alice-in-Wonderland public policy in California,” says Ron Unz, a millionaire software developer with Republican gubernatorial ambitions who is sponsoring the initiative. “It works great in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. We’ve got kids who still barely speak English after years in bilingual classes.”
The “English-only” initiative says: “All children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English.” It would allow a transition period of one year for students who enter a California school without any English, but after that those students would have to go into classrooms where only English is spoken. Bilingual classes, where instruction is in both Spanish and English, would be allowed only in schools where parents of at least 20 non-English-speaking children age 10 or older ask for them.
Supporters of the measure, who are in the process of gathering at least 433,000 voter signatures by Nov. 13, say Spanish-speaking children are dropping out and losing out on college and job opportunities because they haven’t learned enough English to compete with native English-speakers.
“This (initiative) comes out of real-life experience, watching children fail year after year because the system is broken and no one has figured out how to fix it,” says initiative supporter Alice Callaghan, an Episcopalian priest and advocate for Hispanic immigrant parents.
California could start trend in rest of USA
Defenders of bilingual education say they’re worried . “If we lose bilingual education in California today, we could easily lose it everywhere tomorrow,” says Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights group.
Opponents of the measure, who include many of the state’s Hispanic political leaders, argue that abandoning bilingual education would violate civil rights laws. They predict thousands of Spanish-speaking children would fall behind in their studies while struggling to keep up in English-only classes.
“Kids are going to walk into school and be told, ‘You can’t speak Spanish here because your language and culture aren’t welcome here anymore,’ ” says Deborah Escobedo, a lawyer for Hispanic parents suing to stop an Orange County school district from substituting English-only classes for bilingual classes. “They’re not going to learn English and they’re going to be extremely confused for a long time.”
But there is evidence that Hispanics, who make up the state’s largest minority population at 26%, will support the initiative, even though many cannot vote because they are not yet citizens. A recent Los Angeles Times poll in Orange County showed that a large majority of Hispanics there support English-only classes.
A few Hispanic parents have demonstrated their rejection of bilingual education. In a widely publicized boycott of Ninth Street Elementary School in Los Angeles last year, parents of 100 Hispanic students, about one-fifth of the school’s population, pulled their kids out for two weeks, until the school agreed to take the children out of bilingual classes and put them in English-only classes.
“The question is, ‘How do we teach English?’ ” says inititative co-sponsor Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Mexican-American teacher in Santa Ana and a longtime opponent of bilingual education who is herself fluent in both languages. “No one knows which is the proven method, but it’s been their way for 30 years and it hasn’t worked. Isn’t it time to reform the system?”
Under California law, parents have the right to take their kids out of bilingual classes and put them in English-only classes. But many immigrants either don’t know that or are too intimidated by school authorities to challenge them, Callaghan says.
Also, schools have a financial incentive to keep children in bilingual
classes: More students in bilingual classes means more dollars in state funds for bilingual education.
Supporters of bilingual education and immigrant-advocacy groups acknowledge that bilingual classes in many schools are inadequate. But they say that California needs more and better bilingual programs, not fewer.
“It’s not necessary to defend the system to say this (initiative) is an extreme solution,” says Tom Saenz, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “It grows out of hostility towards immigrants and racial intolerance.”
Bilingual teachers, many of whom get extra pay for their bilingual skills, are alarmed at the prospect California might be copied by other states, says Jim Lyons, head of the National Association of Bilingual Educators. “California is a state a lot of people look to for guidance,” he warns.
It’s not clear whether the initiative complies with federal laws. Federal education officials have not commented on it. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the old “sink-or-swim” method of teaching English and required that limited-English students get “special assistance.” But the court did not define what that means.
Initiative supporters insist it complies with the court ruling; opponents argue it does not. One sign that supporters could be
right: Last month, a federal court allowed a school district in the city of Orange, Calif., to go ahead with its one-year experiment to replace bilingual classes in grades K-3 with English-only classes.
Several methods can teach English to immigrants
There are different methods of teaching English to schoolchildren who speak other languages. Some focus on moving kids to English as soon as possible. Others focus more on maintaining the native language. Some methods:
— Bilingual education (traditional): Up to 90% of all instruction is in students’ native languages. Transition to mainstream English may take years.
— Late-exit bilingual (maintenance bilingual): Half the
day in English, half in native language, up to seven years. Designed to maintain native language.
— Early-exit bilingual (transitional bilingual): Half
the day in English, half in native language, up to three years. Designed to move students quickly to English.
— English as a second language (ESL): Daily period in English, with little or no use of native language. The rest of the day, students may be in a bilingual class or a mainstream class.
— Dual immersion (also called two-way or developmental): Class is half native English-speakers, half native foreign-language speakers, learning in both languages. Usually voluntary.
— English-only (structured English immersion): All instruction in English.
— Sheltered English: All instruction in English, but students do not compete academically with native English-speaking students.