On June 2, the fate of bilingual education will be dumped into the laps of voters, giving them this simple choice: Stick with a system that allows for wild success and dismal failure, or chuck it all for a heavy dose of the unknown – an untested, unstudied, one-year English crash course mandated under Proposition 227.
It didn’t have to come to this, according to legislative records and interviews with policy experts, lawmakers, educators and students throughout California. But after 20 years of blocking everything from fundamental restructuring to the simple gathering of data, bilingual advocates and lawmakers find themselves as victims of their own success against change, stuck between two bad choices.
Last year, Assembly Dem-ocrats blocked reform. Last week, Gov. Wilson did the same when he vetoed the Legislature’s belated attempt to overhaul bilingual
education. He then endorsed the proposition.
‘Personally, I think we made a huge mistake (by not passing it in September),’ says Assembly-man Ted Lempert, a Bay Area Democrat who was one of the few liberals urging passage last year. ‘I wish we all had pushed harder. In fact, it’s pretty clear the Legislature should have done something sooner.’
Prop. 227 mandates that children learn English in approximately 180 school days under a concept called ‘sheltered immersion.’
The shelter is a tutor who helps the child over rough places. The immersion means the child mostly is taught in English. The cost is $ 500 million over 10 years.
Existing bilingual education programs, broadly speaking, instruct children in core subjects in their native language, while also teaching them to read, speak and write in English. The goal of all bilingual programs is to reach a level of proficiency in English. That takes years, advocates say.
Regardless of the method, the need is acute. One in four of California’s schoolchildren have limited English skills. In some Fresno Unified School District schools, it’s three of four.
Even so, the state has been unable to create a unified plan to teach and monitor all non-English speakers. Worse still, it hasn’t been able to gather information to allow it to figure out which programs work.
The simple truth, some educators admit, is that bilingual educators have seen the enemy – and it is themselves. Or, more specifically, it is their own statistics and resistance to tighter state control.
Privately, a state Department of Education analyst says he has spent two decades arguing that the department needs better methods to rate which programs work.
‘But assessments always run into roadblocks,’ he says, asking that his name not be used. ‘Teachers – for valid reasons – don’t want to be judged by standardized tests. And I can understand why. It is hard to show the complexity of each teaching situation.
‘But at the same time, we have no numbers, no ammunition in this war. We can’t, statewide, point to the programs or methods that are working.’
Carlos Garcia, Fresno Unified superintendent, agrees: ‘We can be our own worst enemies.’
The dearth of data and lack of uniform programs aren’t new. For the past 20 years, legislative attempts to mandate bilingual education data collection have met resistance.
Dennis Mangers, a former principal and legislator, knows all too well. From 1976-80, he was a rare bird in the state Assembly: a Democrat from Orange County and a passionate believer in reform to bilingual education.
‘Watching the debate over the legislation the past couple of years, it really took me back,’ says Mangers, 57, who in 1968 worked as a principal in Earlimart. ‘Everyone ran into the same problems I did.’
And those were?
‘CABE for one,’ he says with a laugh.
If you don’t work in bilingual education, chances are you’ve never heard of CABE (pronounced cah-bay). But every Sacramento lawmaker has.
Short for the California Asso-ciation of Bilingual Educators, the 7,000-member advocacy group has been instrumental in stopping most major reforms to bilingual education over the past two decades.
Strong believers in traditional bilingual education and the current system, CABE played a primary role in convincing Assembly members to stop last session’s legislation in its tracks.
Last summer, moderate Democrats had urged then-Speaker Cruz Bustamante to allow a vote on a measure that would bolster and better assay California’s troubled bilingual education program. They feared inaction would lend momentum to an anticipated initiative to gut the program.
But the Latino Caucus, the lawmakers who anchored the Fresno Democrat’s place at the top, thought otherwise. Prodded by CABE and, in some cases, their own deeply personal experiences as native Spanish speakers, the caucus asked Bustamante to kill it outright.
Bustamante torpedoed the bill, by Sen. Dede Alpert, a San Diego Democrat who for three years unsuccessfully pushed for reform legislation. Bustamante defended the decision, saying it allowed for far better compromise legislation to be introduced this year.
Even if the original bill had passed, he adds, the initiative was going to be introduced anyway by millionaire Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and one-time gubernatorial candidate who financed Prop. 227.
‘I don’t think it would have made any difference at all,’ Bustamante says. ‘I think Mr. Unz clearly has demonstrated that is he not interested in fixing bilingual education.’
Nevertheless, CABE is beginning to feel the heat from those who say their efforts created the perfect environment for the Unz initiative to take hold.
Herman Sillas, legal counsel for CABE, says singling out CABE is unfair: ‘I’m not sure I buy into that premise. The present situation arises mostly out of a lack of bilingual teachers.’
Sillas says his group only opposes legislation that would erode bilingual
education in California. He did, however, concede that if there had been greater reform historically – reform that CABE could have supported – maybe the Unz initiative would not have happened.
‘I think it is fair to say that everybody involved in the issue gets a share of blame for getting us here,’ he says.
Assemblyman Lempert says the Legislature and CABE made a bad bet: ‘I don’t think you’ll find people to say this publicly, but I think everyone expected the initiative to do poorly so they put off reform.’
Now, it might be too late.
Unz has made much political hay over the Legislature’s inaction and a state number showing only 5%, or 89,000 students, are redesignated each year as fluent in English and then moved into mainstream classes.
During the past four years, 300,000 students of a possible 4 million have been moved into mainstream classes.
Calling it a ‘95% failure rate’ and pointing out – correctly – that he bases this assertion on bilingual educators’ own numbers, Unz effectively has framed the debate not as a good bilingual programs vs. bad ones, but rather bad programs vs. worse ones.
‘Look at their own numbers,’ he says. ‘How can anyone defend them?’
Longtime bilingual policy expert Norm Gold doesn’t want to defend the statistics, which have become the Achilles heel of bilingual education
advocates. He would rather explain them.
‘It’s like saying if you have 1,000 kids in a high school and only the 250 seniors graduate each year, you have a 75% failure rate,’ says Gold, who heads the state’s Office of Bilingual Education. ‘People move through the program over years.’
Moreover, state Department of Education officials add, less than one-third of the 1.4 million limited-English speakers are actually being taught in the student’s native language, or full bilingual education.
Like the state, only about one-third of Fresno Unified’s LEP students receive help in their native language, according to a 1997 district report.
‘The perception is that every limited-English-proficient (LEP) student is in a full-blown bilingual program, and that is far from the truth,’ says Rose Patron, director of Fresno Unified’s multilingual/multicultural office.
Garcia of Fresno Unified says that things are improving, but the public just doesn’t know it. ‘We need to make sure that we have the data to show our programs are working. We haven’t been able to do that, but that is changing.’
In 1996, the district entered into an agreement with the federal Office of Civil Rights to improve the services it offers non-English-speaking students. State and federal investigators found the district’s bilingual program severely deficient and ordered it to improve or risk losing more than $ 20 million.
Since then, the district has made several major changes, including creating a better system of tracking LEP students, establishing clear guidelines for how children will be taught and hiring about 30 bilingual teachers.
It also has launched an innovative bilingual program that combines English- and non-English-speaking students in one class. The idea is to have each group of students learn the other’s language. The program has been a success in the San Jose area for more than a decade.
The program, called two-way immersion, was started this year at Sunset and Leavenworth elementaries. It has been operating for two years at Laton Elementary, with preliminary signs of success.
The goal at the end of six years is for students to be fluent and literate in two languages. Some programs, such as Kerman Unified’s, are doing it in less time. Students who enter its program in kindergarten are transferred to mainstream English classes by the fourth grade.
The process is relatively simple. For most of the day, the students are taught the basics of learning in their native language. And they are taught English. As students move from one grade to the next, the frequency of Spanish is reduced, and the use of English becomes dominant.
So why hasn’t it worked everywhere?
The reasons, educators say, include a shortage of bilingual teachers, a lack of accountability and the weak commitment of school officials.
It isn’t that the system has failed as much as it hasn’t been allowed to succeed, says Garcia of Fresno Unified.
As a young bilingual teacher in the mid-1970s, Garcia remembers the lack of textbooks in Spanish and the absence of training. He didn’t have a bilingual credential because it wasn’t required.
‘We just didn’t have the tools we needed,’ he says. ‘Most of us just translated the textbooks because we didn’t have materials in U.S. history, geography or civics.’
In some respects, Garcia says, bilingual education was doomed to fail. Had the state been serious about teaching limited-English-speaking students, it would have properly trained teachers and worked to make sure everyone was getting results, he says.
‘If you look at what we have done in the last few years, we have really come a long way. I know we have not completely succeeded, but we are making significant progress. I would just hate to see all of that wiped out with one initiative,’ he says.
Some legislators argue that school districts deserve some blame, too. They accuse districts of not accurately accounting for students who graduate or are ‘redesignated’ from bilingual education into mainstream classes because schools can get more money for limited-English students.
It is the redesignation number that Prop. 227 backer Unz refers to when he talks about failures in the system.
But some say more students may be becoming proficient in English than what the numbers show. Says Gold of the state’s bilingual education office: ‘There is a backlog in students who need to be redesignated.’
Much of the problem, he says, is because the schools sometimes are slow to do paperwork that does not directly relate to the instruction process. ‘Paperwork is felt to be a lower priority than teaching kids,’ he says.
But when asked whether the reason could be financial, that schools could just simply be greedy, Gold says: ‘There is the perception that if you redesignate kids you lose money.’
The annual cost to educate an average student is $ 5,000, state records show. The cost for a limited-English student is $ 5,250. For 1,000 students, the difference is $ 250,000.
Fresno Unified, where only 3.8% of students were redesignated as fluent in English proficiency in 1997 – receives $ 8.5 million for its limited-English-speaking population. But district officials say money is not a factor in redesignating students.
Some bilingual advocates counter that the money hardly is an incentive when the real costs of providing bilingual education are factored in.
Opposition to Prop. 227 has made some headway. Polling last year showed 70% in favor of it. In the most recent Field Poll, it eroded to 65%. In the gubernatorial debate May 13, the three leading Democrats – Jane Harman, Gray Davis and Al Checchi – and the lone Republican – Dan Lungren – said they didn’t support Prop. 227 as written.
The growing opposition to the measure could provide little more than cold comfort to opponents. Polling remains solidly in favor of it, to the dismay of those whose programs would be ended under the ballot measure.
Bilingual educators argue that talk of ‘failure’ has distorted public opinion of what bilingual education is.
Among the common misconceptions is that all limited-English-speaking students are in a program where they are taught in their native language, or what the public views as bilingual education.
The fact is that only 30% of California’s limited-English-speaking students get help in their native language. The remainder, 70%, are in specially designed English classes, with little or no native language support.
‘It is so frustrating to hear people say that we aren’t teaching children English, or that they are somehow stuck in bilingual education,’ says Kerman-Floyd Elementary principal Nancy Newsome.
Fresno teacher Maria Elena Gutierrez – a bilingual instructor for nine years
– knows in her heart that immigrant children need help in their own language before being put into English-only classes.
She is also a realist. She knows that Fresno Unified’s attempts at bilingual education haven’t been successful for most students.
‘You think about this whole issue a lot when you are in that classroom working to make sure students are learning,’ she says. ‘I worry about what will happen to them when they leave my classroom. I don’t want them to be left out there without the skills to survive.’
Even with better data, uniform programs and clear evidence of success, however, some say the process does not need to take so long.
Take Dr. Norman Bitter, a Fresno dentist. Or Redding Republican State Sen. Maurice Johannessen.
Bitter, the son of German parents, grew up in Fresno learning English from his older siblings and in school.
‘We didn’t need bilingual programs when I was going to school. We had kids who were Mexican, German, Japanese and Italian,’ Bitter says. ‘And we all learned. Our parents felt that because we were in America, we needed to learn English.’
For Johannessen, who grew up in Oslo, Norway, the Army was his English immersion. In 1952, the 17-year-old deck hand walked off a Norwegian freighter and stepped into a new life in Los Angeles. He had $ 20 in his pocket. No family. No job. And no way to get one.
‘When I came to this country, I didn’t speak a word of English,’ says Johannessen, now in his second term as a state senator. ‘And you can’t just walk up and get a job. So I joined the Army.’
By his own reckoning, Johannessen says, in ’60 to 90 days, I could make myself understood.’ And in one year, he could speak in English well, albeit with a heavy Nordic accent. ‘It wasn’t the king’s English,’ he jokes. ‘But I just told people I was from Minnesota.’
This is why Johannessen believes Prop. 227 is a good thing, beliefs similarly held by many people who arrived in the United States long before bilingual
education entered the schools or the public debate.
‘It was hard,’ he says. ‘But people took me aside and helped me. There was a pressure to learn fast. And I think that would happen to the kids in school.’
Some advocates of bilingual education concede the issue might be lost, at least under the old structure.
Already, such groups as the Mexican American Legal De-fense and Education Fund are preparing to take Prop. 227 to the foster home for all controversial ballot measures in California: the courts.
Attorneys for both sides are preparing to enter the fray. They are expected to focus on the initiative’s overly broad language for classes to be taught ‘overwhelmingly’ in English, the lack of a definition of ‘sheltered’ English and civil-rights decision dating to the early 1970s.
Thomas Saenz, regional council for MALDEF, declined to discuss the specifics of what its legal challenge might be. But he agrees that vague legal language in a ballot measure is the perfect habitat for attorneys.
‘We are looking into the legal ramifications if it passes,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of questions about this initiative.’
Administrators and teachers, who will be in the classroom not the courts, already may have decided what they will do if the initiative passes.
At Mayfair Elementary, where 56% of the students have limited-English skills, principal Al Sanchez suspects his teachers will use whatever tools they have to help their students.
‘The truth is that when that teacher closes his or her door, then they have control of the classroom,’ he says. ‘They will do what is best for their students.’