LOS ANGELES, Aug. 12, 1987—In a blow to the national bilingual-education movement, unionized teachers here have voted overwhelmingly to ask for a return to predominantly English instruction.
Los Angeles has the nation’s largest program for teaching immigrant schoolchildren in their native languages, and National Education Association spokesman Howard Carroll called it “the centerpiece of the whole country. What happens there will affect the whole country.”
The vote by nearly 7,000 members of United Teachers-Los Angeles marked the first time the bilingual-education issue had been submitted to a large teacher’s group, federal education officials said.
Results tabulated Tuesday night in a UTLA referendum forced by opponents of bilingual instruction showed 5,346, or 78 percent, in favor of moving toward predominantly English instruction, often called “immersion.” About 22 percent, 1,499 members, opposed the move.
A separate ballot measure asking support for the current system, which encourages instruction in Spanish or other foreign languages for recent immigrants, was defeated 58 percent to 42 percent.
The vote only sets the union’s bargaining position and is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the Los Angeles school board’s support for its bilingual program. But educators and union officials said it will have a significant impact in other districts still debating how to teach immigrants.
“It is critically, critically important,” said Stanley Diamond, chairman of U.S.ENGLISH California, the group that led the successful campaign last year to make English the official state language.
The UTLA vote comes after California Gov. George Deukmejian (R) vetoed the state’s bilingual education law. His veto allows local school districts to decide how to educate an estimated 525,000 California children with limited or no English skills.
An estimated 1.2 million to 1.7 million American children are unable to understand English well, and until now the bilingual approach has been a widely accepted way of helping them. But a few researchers, parents and teachers have begun to argue that the program only delays adjustment to American society. They say all-English instruction, with some foreign language assistance by teachers’ aides, would be better.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Sally Peterson, a third-grade teacher at Glenwood Elementary School here and president of the teachers group that won the UTLA vote.
“People were saying that we spoke for just a small number of teachers in the [San Fernando] Valley,” a predominantly Anglo part of the school district.
Mark Meza-Overstreet, an elementary school teacher active in the UTLA’s Chicano Education Committee, said he was “quite disheartened that the teachers didn’t take into account the needs of these children.” Bilingual teachers argue that their immigrant students will fall behind in science, mathematics and other subjects if they are not taught in their native language while adjusting to English.
Meza-Overstreet’s organization, and its many supporters on the school board, have noted many studies, including a March report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, that say bilingual education appears to improve students’ English in the long run.
Los Angeles has 159,000 pupils who have been identified as needing help with English — more than any other district in the country. But it has been able to recruit only 3,300 of the 6,000 bilingual teachers it needs.
This has forced administrators to require some teachers to learn Spanish in their spare time or risk transfer to another school. This “waiver” system has become unpopular with the UTLA.
UTLA President Wayne Johnson and school board member Julie Korenstein, a former teacher, said they believed that opposition to the waiver system, rather than to bilingual education, explained the vote.
Jackie Goldberg, a teacher on the school board, noted that a minority of the union’s 21,000 members and the district’s 30,000 teachers mailed in their referendum ballots.
More than half of Los Angeles schoolchildren, but only about 10 percent of their teachers, are Latino. More than 60 percent of teachers are Anglo and slightly less than 20 percent are black. Goldberg said she thought the vote reflected a widespread American discomfort with the ideal of bilingualism. “If this were Europe,” she said, “we’d get a different result.”
Peterson, head of the victorious Learning English Advocates Drive (LEAD), which proposed the referendum, disagreed. She said teachers voted against the bilingual program because they saw too many children failing to master English. She said her group will lobby the school board to move to immersion and will seek similar votes by teachers on the bilingual issue at the state and national levels.
The UTLA is one of the nation’s few teachers unions to be affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
An NEA spokesman indicated that the UTLA vote contradicts a 1987 NEA convention resolution supporting bilingual education whenever resources are available. An AFT spokeswoman said that union supports bilingual education in general, but only if union members in the local area agree.
The resolution approved by the UTLA said that “cross-cultural understanding” can be achieved “with an immersion program in English” that includes intensive instruction in English as a second language and a teaching system that is full of visual aides and begins with simple words and phrases. “Bilingual [teachers’] aides,” the resolution said, “would offer native language assistance.”
Teachers complained that under the current system, aides often taught classes while the English-speaking teacher stood by, not entirely sure what was being said.
Linda Chavez, a former Reagan administration official who is to become president of U.S.ENGLISH’s national organization, emphasized that her group does not oppose bilingual education but wants whatever system will best move immigrants into the English-speaking world.