FOR two decades, California law and policy required schools to teach students with limited English proficiency in their native languages. On June 2, voters will have a chance to set a new statewide policy that requires teaching in English.

This newspaper will do its best to provide information to help voters decide on Proposition 227, and to provide a forum for different perspectives. We’ll make our recommendation on 227 next month. Today, some opening thoughts.

The status quo is dreadful. Virtually all limited-English students learn to speak English, but many never learn to read and write well enough to succeed in high school, trade school or college. Whatever we’re doing isn’t working, especially for students from poorly educated Spanish-speaking families.

Is the fault with bilingual education? That’s much harder to answer. Only 30 percent of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students are in bilingual classes, despite the state policy that was dropped only last month. Schools could avoid the requirement if there weren’t many students speaking the same language at the same grade level, or by providing some native-language tutoring.

However, most Hispanic LEP students do go through bilingual classes in elementary school. How many? The state doesn’t know. How does the achievement of students in bilingual education compare to students in other programs? The state doesn’t track the achievement of LEP students. The Latino graduation rate is only 54 percent. What percentage of Latino drop-outs are LEP students?
Were they taught in Spanish or English? Dunno.

Los Angeles Unified tracked limited-English students who’d attended the same school from kindergarten through fifth grade. More than 60 percent of students educated in bilingual programs could not read English well enough to be tested in English after six years of American schooling.

When bilingual education is done well, it works, studies show. But it’s usually done poorly in California, in large part because we lack qualified,
truly bilingual teachers. When the ostensibly bilingual teacher can’t speak Spanish, LEP students are taught by aides, who may have a high school education.
And the teacher shortage is getting worse.

Whatever one’s views on Proposition 227, Californians owe Ron Unz a vote of thanks: He’s made it impossible to ignore the problem. Whether they should give his initiative a vote of approval is a different question, and one we’ll deal with in the coming weeks.

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