Californians had the good sense to pass Proposition 227 by a decisive 61 to 39 percent margin last week, supposedly ending what has been the disappointing malpractice of bilingual education in the schools. Millions of children who don’t speak English will benefit. So will the nation.

But opponents haven’t given up – for a stew of political, opportunistic, financial, selfish, soft-hearted and misguided reasons. A coalition of advocacy, civil rights and education groups has already filed suit in federal court to block the initiative from going into effect, saying that it violates constitutional guarantees of equal protection and federal education laws. A few California school systems have insisted they will not comply with the new law. As many as 1,500 bilingual teachers have indicated they will not change, even though the proposition states that they can be sued for damages by parents if they don’t.

The outcome is of intense interest nationally, where other states are struggling to educate 1.5 million children whose native language is not English. At stake, long-term, is whether the schools will help or hinder the effort to fold the growing number of immigrants into one nation and keep the country from becoming a collection of ethnic minorities squabbling for rights, money, power and victim privileges.

Proposition 227, called the “English for the Children” initiative, requires California’s schools to discontinue most bilingual education programs. Instead, the 1.4 million students in that state who do not speak English well are to get one year of intensive immersion in English and then be shifted into mainstream classes. Schools have 60 days to make the switch.

The initiative also requires the state to spend $50 million annually for nine years for free or subsidized adult English-language instruction for parents or community members who will work with schoolchildren who are learning English.

The fundamental problem with bilingual education – as California voters were savvy enough to realize – is that it doesn’t work very well. In theory, it seems like a good, kind idea. Children who don’t speak English are to be taught basic subjects at grade level in their native language while they are gradually exposed to English and their self-esteem enhanced. When they become proficient in English, they are to be shifted to mainstream classes.

But, in practice, it often takes six or seven years for children to learn enough English to function outside of bilingual classes. Some never do. Dropout rates are high. Bilingual students tend to be segregated, isolated from other kids. Schools in California, where the student population speaks a total of 55 languages, have had difficulty finding enough fluent bilingual teachers and often settle for those whose English is limited.

Parents have been divided on the issue. Many helped push Proposition 227 early on because they want their children to learn English faster and better, understanding that English fluency is essential to success in the United States. Other parents like the idea of having the schools foster their native language, feel more comfortable talking to bilingual teachers and want schools to help preserve their native culture.

Early on, Hispanic parents backed Proposition 227 by a large percentage, according to polls. (Eighty percent of students in California with limited English fluency speak Spanish.) But that support began to erode as the campaign against the initiative heated up – financed in part by Spanish-language business interests eager to keep a Spanish-speaking base. Bilingual teachers and education bureaucrats who feared losing jobs and influence protested against the initiative. School officials fretted publicly about losing federal money for bilingual classes. Exit polls showed that only 37 percent of Hispanic voters finally approved of the measure.

President Clinton campaigned in California against Proposition 227. But he said bilingual education isn’t working well for all children, that it could hinder learning English and should not keep youngsters “trapped in some sort of intellectual purgatory where they’ll get bored and drop out of school and won’t go forward.” Legal analysts in the Clinton administration say the initiative does not violate federal law and is consistent with Lau vs. Nichols, the 1974 Supreme Court decision on school programs for non-English-speaking students.

Cut through the overheated rhetoric and exaggerated assertions and two fundamental facts remain:

1. Public schools have the duty to teach English efficiently and quickly to children who aren’t fluent in the language. It is not their job to maintain immigrant cultures or languages. Diversity and tolerance are admirable, of course. But this nation must have a common language. And people who choose to live in this country benefit from knowing English well.

2. Neurological research clearly shows that the brain can learn language most easily in the early years of life and that the older students get, the more difficult it becomes. The more time children waste in bilingual classes, waiting for a gradual introduction to English, the harder it is for them to learn English proficiently. Immersion is the most effective way to teach language, especially to young children, because of the way the brain encodes language. Seventy percent of California’s non-English-speaking students are in elementary school, a majority in kindergarten through third grade.

But immersion is also most efficient for older students. For example, an American teenager who spends a year in French-speaking classes in France would be expected to handle the language adequately.

Rather than continuing to bicker over an unsuccessful educational practice, ethnic power and the merits of setting school policy by popular vote, those entrusted with educating children should just get on with teaching English effectively and quickly. It shouldn’t be a matter of politics, jobs for minority teachers, ethnic voting blocs, cultural respect or good intentions. It’s a matter of how the brain learns best.

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