PALO ALTO — President Clinton urged Californians to carefully debate an initiative on the June ballot that would end most bilingual education programs, warning that Proposition 227 would do more harm than good.
Speaking out on the measure for the first time, Clinton said that the one year of sheltered English immersion imposed by the initiative would not allow enough time for some children to learn a new language and make the transition to mainstream classrooms.
Specifically, the president mentioned children who might have individual language problems at early ages, and children who might have difficulty learning English because of the native language they speak.
“I’m very sympathetic with the impulse that put this initiative on the ballot, but I think it’s the wrong answer,” Clinton said late Friday night at a fund-raising event in the Portola Valley home of Walter Shorenstein, a wealthy real estate magnate.
A White House spokesman said 60 or 70 people attended the event, which raised about $600,000. The event was closed to the public and transcripts of his remarks were made available yesterday.
Clinton said his administration, as announced in a proposal last week,
believes current bilingual education programs — teaching children in their native language for up to seven years — are too long.
“What we’re going to try to do at the national level is to develop a program with a presumption that no one should be in these programs for more than three years — but that we have to do more to make them mean something,”
The initiative and the president’s stand against it have drawn national attention. Bilingual education is an emotionally charged issue in California,
where a fourth of the 5.6 million students in public schools speak limited English.
“You should see this as an opportunity to debate the face and future of California,” Clinton said. “And you should see this as an opportunity to examine what your mutual responsibilities are to all these kids that are going to be doing the work for all the rest of us 10 or 20 or 30 years from now.”
Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who wrote Proposition 227, said information he gave White House aides during a briefing they requested several months ago apparently was not passed on to the president and his speech writers.
“It really does sound like the president is not well informed on the details of our initiative,” said Unz.
The main phrase in Proposition 227 declares that “all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English.”
But Unz said the initiative is flexible and allows waivers from the sheltered English immersion program in three cases, including when the child is 10 years or older and the principal and educational staff agree that an alternative to immersion would be better for the student.
Waivers also could be granted after 30 days of immersion if the principal and staff believe that the child has “special physical, emotional,
psychological or educational needs.” A third kind of waiver is intended to authorize “dual immersion” programs in which students who already know English are taught in another language.
To receive a waiver, the child’s parents or legal guardian must visit the school and be briefed on the educational programs. Schools must allow students with waivers to transfer to another school. Or, if 20 or more students in a grade receive waivers, the school must offer them bilingual education or a similar program.
In the one-year immersion program, teachers would sound out words in English and use pictures and repetition. There would be limited use of a student’s native language.
Clinton’s remarks on bilingual education came toward the end of a lengthy address at the fund-raising event in what he called Shorenstein’s “palatial and gorgeous place.”
“Now, I’m going into this in some detail because it’s an important issue for California,” Clinton said. “The parents who don’t want their kids held back and given second-class education by being kept in bilingual education programs for five and six years, they deserve a pat on the back.
“But the answer,” Clinton continued, “is not to say, we’ll go to one year and you’re out without knowing, number one, what’s going to be in that year.
“Number two, can you provide the teachers that need to be provided?
Number three, is it literally intellectually possible for every child of every age — no matter what age they are when they come in this country and what their language is — to get that training?”
Unz has said that he launched the initiative after reading about a boycott of a Los Angeles school by Latino parents who wanted their children taught in English. Polls show that most Latino parents support the initiative,
but the margin is dropping as the campaign against the initiative heats up.
Clinton said immigrant children speak about 100 languages and the transition to English from some languages takes longer than from others.
Unz said most bilingual education programs are in Spanish because of a shortage of teachers who speak other languages. He said many Asian students,
who speak non-European languages unrelated to English, learn English quickly without bilingual education.
Clinton cited an estimate that up to 20 percent of students who do not speak English are getting no help. “I guess they’re in the position that this amendment would put a lot of people in,” he said.
Unz said providing no help to students, what some call “sink or swim,” is unconstitutional under a U.S. Supreme Court decision. He said no action is taken against the schools because teachers who speak the language of the children are not available.
One key aspect of a sheltered English immersion program, said Unz, is that teachers do not need to speak the language of the student.
“It’s nice if the teacher speaks the child’s language, but it isn’t necessary,” said Unz.
Yesterday, Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton spent the day with their daughter, Chelsea, who is a freshman at Stanford University.
Today, Clinton plans to fly to Los Angeles for a fund-raiser tonight and a public appearance related to energy tomorrow.
A White House spokesman said Clinton has been staying at a Palo Alto area house owned by Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers. Unz said Jobs has a house about a half-dozen blocks from Unz’s home.