Laws limiting bilingual education are slowly immigrating to school districts and states across the country.
But they are still foreign to most voters.
“There aren’t that many states that have the (ballot) initiative process and have bilingual programs,” said Ron Unz, a California software millionaire who has led successful anti-bilingual education campaigns in two other states. “And most politicians tend to be very, very cautious of getting involved in something like this. They view it as controversial.”
Unz and other opponents of bilingual education filed proposals Tuesday to put such an initiative on Colorado’s ballot. It will take some 80,000 voter signatures to qualify for next year’s election. Similar measures are under consideration in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Oregon.
But the measures have been adopted by voters in only two states —
California and Arizona.
In addition, school board members in the nation’s largest public school district, in New York City, voted in February in favor of reforms that allow parents of non-English speakers to refuse instruction in their native language.
At the federal level, funding for bilingual education nearly doubled to more than $700 million under both House and Senate versions of the sweeping Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed this spring.
The House version eliminates a requirement that 75-percent of federal aid support programs that use a child’s native language and requires states to move children out of limited-English proficient classes within three years.
But the Senate version simply consolidates current programs and makes them a little more flexible. The legislation is now in conference committee.
Unz championed the California and Arizona initiatives limiting bilingual education.
In 1997, three years after his failed bid to be California’s governor, Unz drafted Proposition 227, the so-called “English for the Children Initiative”
in that state. Voters approved the measure in June 1998.
In November 2000, he helped pass a similar measure in Arizona.
It’s hard to say whether limiting bilingual education improves achievement.
Arizona’s plan is so new it has yet to be implemented.
But California has seen Stanford 9 test scores increase since 1998, and Unz credits Prop 227.
However, Jaime Zapata, public affairs director for the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington, D.C., says Stanford 9 scores increased for most California students, not just English language learners.
And California’s state education department has not broken down test scores of limited English proficient students to allow comparisons based on language programs, according to Education Week, a national education newspaper.
That means that both supporters and opponents of Prop. 227 are forced to draw on anecdotal comparisons between specific districts that have embraced English immersion and districts that have held fast to bilingual education.