Passing or failing? Bilingual classes are put to the test

Prop. 227 advocates say the method doesn't work; foes argue the initiative would create a 'one-size-fits-all bureaucracy'

Bienvenidos al mundo del educaci?n biling?e.

Welcome to the world of bilingual education.

Luu ? — be careful — because it is a confusing place where an international kaleidoscope of teachers, children and their immigrant parents collide with academia, unions and big-time politics.

In California, where one out of four schoolchildren is classified as “limited English proficient,” the issue of how to teach English to these children from San Salvador, Ho Chi Minh City and Moscow has moved from academic circles to the ballot box, the courthouse and the statehouse.

On June 2, voters will decide the fate of one teaching method — bilingual education. If they approve Proposition 227, also known as English for the Children or the Unz initiative (after the author and chief financial backer, Ron K. Unz), bilingual programs will end, replaced by a one-year crash course in English.

Educators and politicians in other ethnically diverse states — New York,
Florida, Texas and Illinois — are monitoring the campaign. Bilingual teachers nationwide fear a California-led backlash that would reduce their status and income. English-only advocates, including opponents of Puerto Rican statehood, will gain impetus with a Prop. 227 victory.

Even if Prop. 227 fails, the existing structure of bilingual education is at risk. In mid-March, the state Board of Education voted to increase local districts’ flexibility in determining how to teach immigrant children by rescinding its long-standing policy requiring districts to offer native language instruction.

Also, a San Diego-area state senator has proposed a bill that would let school districts decide which methods to use to teach their nonnative English speakers. The Assembly is expected to consider the bill Wednesday.

So why are all these grown-ups suddenly focusing so much time, money,
and political clout on immigrant children?

“The presence of a large number of immigrants since the late ’70s has raised a lot of difficult problems for local communities,” said Bruce Cain, professor of political science at UC-Berkeley and associate director of the Institute of Governmental Studies.

“If resources were unlimited, people probably wouldn’t begrudge immigrants’ bilingual education. As resources get tight and people look around and see there’s no money for calculus classes or the football team or whatever their priorities are, they get grumpier about things that look to them to be unnecessary.”

Unz, a conservative Republican who challenged Gov. Pete Wilson in the gubernatorial primary in 1994, became intrigued by the bilingual education debate two years ago, when he read about a Latino parents’ protest in Los Angeles. These parents believed their neighborhood school was segregating their children in Spanish-language classes and obstructing their efforts to learn English and move into the American mainstream.

“When things have reached the point where parents have to carry picket signs outside of schools because the school isn’t listening, it seems to go off the deep end,” Unz said.

The stories of frustrated immigrant parents and Unz’s position on the board of directors of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, deepened his interest in bilingual education.

A Silicon Valley electronics entrepreneur with no formal background in education theory, Unz threw himself and his money into the issue, hooking up with Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Santa Ana teacher who ran unsuccessfully for state schools superintendent in 1994 and is running again this year.
Using Tuchman’s English-based first-grade classroom as the model of how to teach immigrant children, they fashioned an initiative that:

Orders all children be placed in an English-language classroom after a “temporary transition period” for learning English that is not normally intended to exceed one year. .Calls for a $50 million program of community-based adult English-language instruction. .Enables parents to sue teachers, school board members or administrators if they believe their children are being denied the option of an English-language curriculum.
.IAllows parents to apply for waivers so certain children, including older ones or ones with special needs, could receive instruction in their native language.

So far, pollsters say Prop. 227 is a winner, with about 70 percent of all voters favoring it. A mid-March Field Poll showed strong Latino support for the initiative, with 61 percent of those surveyed in favor. That result contradicts a February poll of Latino parents by a Los Angeles Spanish-language newspaper and TV station, which revealed that only 43 percent would support Prop. 227. Approval among Asian-Americans was stronger, the Field Poll said,
with 75 percent in favor.

Prop. 227, the hot-button issue of the June election, is the latest in a series of initiatives related to demographic changes in a state that will have a “minority majority” population by 2020 — with whites outnumbered by blacks, Latinos, and Asians. In 1994, Californians voted to limit the services provided to immigrants through passage of Proposition 187 (most of which was struck down by a federal court judge in mid-March) and last year voted to dismantle an affirmative action system that has provided certain educational and employment advantages to minorities, including nonwhite immigrants.

Educators have been divided over bilingual education for years, said Bruce Fuller, a UC-Berkeley professor who serves as director of an education think tank, Policy Analysis for California Education.

“And whenever there’s a political stalemate,” Fuller said,
“the default position is to leave it alone.

“But now Ron Unz is forcing this issue. It is lent special energy by the cultural anxiety of white conservatives, who feel their cultural values are being eroded by multiculturalism and immigration policy. Personally,
I think this debate is adding negative energy and is being pumped up by anti-immigrant bias. Instead of asking how to pull these children into the mainstream, we’re talking about stamping out their native language in the classroom. It’s pretty disrespectful.”

This is a year in which virtually all of California’s top politicians have decided that education is a key issue for making friends with voters
— especially well-heeled, well-educated suburban voters. Prop. 227 is one of two education initiatives on the June ballot, with a sheaf more to come in November.

Proponents of propositions 227 and 223, the latter a plan to limit administrative costs in school districts, want to centralize education decisions in Sacramento and limit the discretion of local districts. Prop. 227’s supporters say a statewide mandate is the only way to reform bilingual education because inertia and teachers union politics prevent districts from making the kinds of sweeping change ordered by the initiative.

“We’ve had a system that has failed (immigrant children),”
said Tuchman, the initiative author. “It’s time to say we have failed them, and we are going to move forward and rectify the problem.”

Opponents of Prop. 227 chant a mantra: “Local control!” They believe it makes no sense to enact statewide policies of this type in California,
where conditions vary so much from district to district, depending on size,
geography and the demographics of the student population. “One size fits all” policies do not work, opponents insist, preferring to defer to the wisdom of locally elected school board trustees.

Currently, California’s schools teach English to immigrant children in a variety of ways. Of the 1.4 million students considered English learners,
less than one-third — about 410,000 — are in the type of traditional bilingual programs targeted for extinction by the Unz initiative.

These classes are conducted in the children’s native language, primarily so students can study reading, math, science and history while learning English. They are offered only where the foreign student population is big enough to fill an entire class with students speaking the same language and where a credentialed bilingual teacher is available. In this area, the Mt. Diablo, West Contra Costa and Pittsburg school districts include traditional bilingual instruction.

About 40 percent of the state’s English learners are in specially designed sheltered classes in which a trained teacher speaks a slow, carefully-enunciated,
repetitive English. About half these students also receive extra support in their native language.

The rest of the children learning English are in regular classrooms,
although about one-third of those students are pulled out of class for supplementary English lessons.

The state distributes about $340 million a year for districts to spend on their English learners — about $250 for each student. Millions of dollars in federal funds, earmarked for low-income or low-achieving students, also end up in education programs for immigrant children.

So, which method works best?

The answer depends on whose research you’re reading — and there is as much research to defend bilingual education as there is to skewer it. Results vary for any number of reasons, including how long the children were studied and the extent to which other social factors were considered or controlled.

Just last month, a National Research Council committee published a book-length proposal on how research can improve education of immigrant children. In a chapter about program evaluation, the committee wrote that most of the existing research is highly politicized and that much is worthless.

Initiative opponents want to narrow the debate on Prop. 227 by zeroing in on academics and local control. They say the proposition will lock school districts into one unproven model that is being thrust on the state by two ambitious would-be politicians, Unz and Tuchman.

“I think it’s very important that voters realize that it’s not a referendum on bilingual education,” said Kelly Hayes-Raitt, the chief spokeswoman for No on Unz. “It creates a one-size-fits-all state-mandated bureaucracy.”

Unz spokeswoman Sheri Annis said the opponents attack only details of the initiative because they don’t want to discuss what proponents say is the real subject: the failure of bilingual education.

“It’s necessary to go to the voters to ensure that all children will be exposed to English as soon as possible,” Annis said. “Most voters concede that the current program is a failure. They want to see a change.”

Pam King and Andrea Lampros cover education and issues related to Prop. 227. You can reach Pam at 925-977-8406 and Andrea at 925-943-8155 or write to them at P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.

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