WASHINGTON (AP) — Clinton administration officials, and perhaps the president himself, will travel to California to speak out against Proposition 227, a ballot measure that would dismantle the state’s bilingual education programs.
Replacing a multiplicity of bilingual education programs with a one-year course of instruction taught mostly in English would leave schoolchildren without needed skills, including ones that will help them find jobs in the future, Marshall Smith, the Education Department’s acting deputy secretary,
“The best data that we have, the best research that we have suggests that the one-year immersion structure … is a major mistake,” Smith said. “The movement under way in California is not based in sound policy or research.”
Instead, the administration is calling for an alternative strategy —
setting the nationwide goal of limiting most children’s participation in bilingual programs to three years.
In a written statement, Education Secretary Richard Riley said Proposition 227, also called the Unz Amendment, “is not the way to go. In my opinion,
adoption of the Unz Amendment will lead to fewer children learning English and many children falling further behind in their studies.”
The three-year limitation would be a goal, not a requirement, Riley and Smith said.
“Individual differences and circumstances may cause some children to take longer, but a goal of learning English within three years is reasonable,”
California Gov. Pete Wilson said Monday he had not decided whether he favors the proposition but “I’m strongly leaning that way.” He accused President Clinton of using the issue to play politics.
“I frankly think he has no business, I think the U.S. Department of Education has no business, substituting his judgment for that of the people of California,” Wilson said.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the California vote could affect bilingual programs nationwide. “There’s some reason to believe that federal bilingual education programs are at some risk because of measures pending in Congress that would cut funding for those programs,” McCurry said.
Current law calls for, but does not require, non-English-speaking children to go through three to five years of bilingual education, Smith said.
Proposition 227, authored by Silicon Valley millionaire and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, would require children with limited ability to speak English to be taught “overwhelmingly” in English for a year before being moved into regular classrooms. Supporters say the current system takes too long and produces children who never become proficient in English.
Residents of California, where 55 different languages are officially recognized in the schools, will vote on it June 2. Statewide polls show about 60 percent of voters support it, including about half the Hispanic voters polled.
Across the nation, about 3.2 million students have limited English skills,
and 1.3 million are in local and state bilingual programs, the Education Department said. The number of limited-English students has nearly doubled in less than a decade.
Of some 5 million California public school students in kindergarten through the 12th grade, about 1.4 million have limited English proficiency. About one-fourth of those are in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest public school district.
Although Proposition 227 does not appear to be unconstitutional on its face, officials trying to implement it could run afoul of federal civil rights laws, Smith said.
“Case law requires school districts to take steps to ensure that national-origin minority students with limited English proficiency must be able to effectively participate in the regular educational program offerings,”
Riley and Smith also criticized the ballot measure as one that would impose a “one size fits all” approach on the entire state. The administration’s proposal would give local school districts the flexibility to design programs best for their areas and let teachers decide what is best for a particular student, they said.
“The Unz Initiative is a direct attack on local control of education,”
The idea that children can learn English quickly by total immersion is largely a myth, said Delia Pompa, director of the Education Department’s bilingual education and minority languages office. Many may be able to pick up conversational English, but they often cannot read it at a high level or learn in it.