WHEN children are told to sink or swim, without a lifeguard to save
them if their heads go under, it could be construed as child abuse. Yet,
that’s precisely what California voters told immigrant children last
week when they decided to dismantle the state’s bilingual education
The Draconian Proposition 227, approved by 61 percent of California
voters, bans bilingual education in favor of a sink-or-swim plan to
assign students to no more than one year of an English immersion
This ballot initiative is flawed because it gives children , those
who need and deserve the most opportunities, only one chance to succeed
No doubt bilingual education has problems that need to be
corrected, but pushing children into dangerous waters is not the answer.
A three-year transition program, such as the one we encourage in New
Jersey, is much more reasonable.
Opponents of bilingual education are right when they charge that,
under the current system, in some parts of the country some children
take too long to learn English. But its supporters have an even more
valid argument when they say that children who are thrown into
English-only classes will fall behind academically.
Unfortunately, just like other repulsive California ballot
initiatives that come east to haunt the rest of the nation, two days
after Proposition 227 was passed, a House panel approved a bill that
would put new limits on federal aid for bilingual education.
Voting along strict party lines, with Republicans doing their usual
immigrant bashing, the House Education and Workforce Committee passed
the measure 22-17. It favors California’s English immersion program, and
encourages other states to follow suit, by ending the current system of
awarding federal bilingual education money through a competitive program
in favor of giving it in block grants for states to use as they wish.
Ironically, the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif.,
apparently seeing the growing voter strength of Latinos and other
immigrants, was trying to flirt with both sides on this issue. Since his
bill sets a limit of three years, instead of one, for participation in
bilingual programs, he thought he could fool everyone.
First he cited the California vote as the reason other Congress
members should support his measure, which also bans funding for
training bilingual education teachers, and then he implied that
California voters went too far.
“Personally,”Riggs said,”I feel that Proposition 227 is too
Fortunately, just like another infamous California voter
initiative, known as Proposition 187, the courts are likely to find this
new measure unconstitutional.
A coalition of civil rights groups, immigrant advocates, and
educators asked a U.S. District Court for a temporary injunction to
block implementation of Proposition 227.
They will argue that parents who want their children in bilingual
education programs should have the right to make basic choices about
their children’s education. They will tell the courts that while
immigrant children should indeed learn English, denying them access to
science, math, and history courses in their native language, while
immersed in English-only classes, is a violation of their civil and
They will note that Proposition 227 violates the Civil Rights Act
of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974.
While the measure’s supporters believe their victory will be proven
to be constitutional, it’s hard to see how the courts will condone
denying immigrant students access to the educational programs enjoyed by
English-speaking students. It’s a clear-cut case of discrimination based
on language and national origin.
If the courts let Proposition 227 stand, California will soon have
some 1.4 million mostly Hispanic children stranded in classes they do
not understand, a dramatic increase in school dropouts, and a new
generation of youths relegated to meager jobs or lives of crime. No
doubt it would intensify and worsen Anglo-Hispanic tensions.
Many Proposition 227 supporters and TV talking heads spent the last
few months bragging about polls that allegedly showed that even a
majority of Latinos were supporting the measure. The thought was
repulsive. But last week, exist polls found that Latinos opposed it by a
substantial 2-to-1 margin, which means you can only fool some of the
people some of the time.
Under Proposition 227, teachers can be sued if they refuse to teach
overwhelmingly in English. But that’s just what some brave California
teachers have vowed to do, even if it puts their jobs at risk. In San
Francisco, school officials voted to continue bilingual programs until
ordered to stop them, and to pay the legal bills of teachers sued for
violating the measure.
“We don’t intend to sink or swim,”San Francisco schools
Superintendent Bill Rojas told an anti-Proposition 227 rally last week.
“La lucha the battle has just begun.”
That’s commendable courage, in any language.