Los Angeles—At a debate on Thursday, supporters of Proposition 227 were inundated with disapproval from an audience who will help decide the future of bilingual
If passed, Proposition 227 will require that all public school instruction for Limited English Proficient (LEP) students be conducted in English, for a period not normally exceeding one year.
Thursday’s debate, sponsored by the Asian Pacific Coalition and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan, featured two educators, a UCLA student and a member of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF).
Proponents of Proposition 227 focused more on the current problems with bilingual education than the merits of an English-only system.
Henry Gradillas, former principal of Garfield High School, attributed his support for Proposition 227 to the gridlock in Congress over improving bilingual education.
“Nothing is being done. No one else wants to tackle this issue,” Gradillas said.
Opponent Gay Wong, an associate professor of education at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) said the main problem with the initiative is “it provides a single-method answer to a complicated problem.”
Wong said that teachers must assess a students’ diversity, age, educational background and socio-economic status when deciding how to best teach a student, and Proposition 227 would eliminate this type of process.
Panelists first addressed the implementation of the initiative.
Alicia Sherman, a volunteer for the English for the Children Campaign and a third-year sociology student, said classes that are now bilingual would become immersion classes, utilizing visual aids and dialogue exercises to teach English.
Opponents argued that the language of the initiative is vague. Silvia Arqueta, a lawyer from MALDEF, said it lacks accountability and flexibility.
Arqueta also pointed out that the initiative does not specify who would assess the 1.4 million limited English proficient children, nor does it describe what tests would be used to determine if they had a “good working knowledge.”
Proposition 227 states, “local school districts shall be permitted to place in the same classroom English learners of different ages but whose degree of language proficiency is similar.”
However, Sherman downplayed this as a common myth, saying that the only times where this might occur would be in rural or small school districts who can not afford a one-to-one student teacher ratio.
Proponents pointed out that the initiative says nothing about rural school districts.
Arqueta questioned the effect of being put in a class with much younger children would have on a child’s self-esteem and desire to learn.
The initiative would put LEP students in an English-only classroom for one year and then move them in a mainstream classroom unless the child’s parents filed a waiver. Opponents said the time limit of one year is not enough to speak and understand English as it pertains to academics.
Sherman said that a one-year time limit to learn English included summer school, weekends and after-school.
One of the biggest issues of the night was the waiver program proposal included in the proposition.
Proposition 227 requires a legal guardian or parent to visit the school to apply for a waiver to transfer their child from the English-only classroom to a bilingual program.
One will be granted in three cases: if the child already knows English, if the child is 10 or older or if they can be labeled “special needs.”
The pro-227 panelists insisted that the waiver system puts the control in the parents’ hands. In situations where a child has been unable to learn English after a year, the waiver will provide them with the opportunity to return to the bilingual education program.
Wong doubted that parents would apply for waivers.
“Schools are institutions of government and authority and many of the parents come from countries where you don’t mess with the government,” Wong said.
Wong also said many parents don’t have a strong command of English and would be intimidated in an academic setting.
Proposition 227 also will hold teachers liable if they willfully and repeatedly refuse to implement the initiative.
Supporters Sherman and Gradillas both insisted that this does not mean a teacher cannot use a student’s native language, as long as the overwhelming time teaching is spent in English.
However, Wong said that the phrase “willfully and repeatedly” can be open to interpretation and she questioned what constituted repeatedly.
Arqueta also said that this would create a hostile relationship between teachers, parents and students who would feel compelled to tell their parents if their teacher spoke in their native language.
“Read the initiative and make up your mind. If you want to reform bilingual education this is not the way. We deserve better. Our children deserve better,” Arqueta said.