Recently, Ron Unz, the father of “English for the Children” known in California as Proposition 227, which outlawed Bilingual Education (dubbed by many as “Almost All Spanish” education) and replaced it with English immersion, announced a “stunning political development.”
The senior educational appointees of Governor Gray Davis’s Administration moved to restore California’s system of bilingual education by nullifying crucial provisions of Proposition 227, the least of which was to turn over the waiver rights of parents to decide whether their children would do better in bilingual education, to the school’s educators.
It was impossible for me to imagine such a move by the education experts after the reading and academic scores of California’s immigrant children have been steadily on the rise since Proposition 227 was put into effect in 1998.
I am a son of immigrant parents, my native language is Yiddish. As a child entering school, I quickly became proficient in the English language without the “benefit” of bilingual education. I attended most of my elementary school years and all of my junior high school in East Los Angeles from the early 40s to the early 50s.
The ethnic demographics in the East Los Angeles district of Boyle Heights at that time was made up of approximately 40% first and second generation Jewish immigrants, 40% first and second generation Latino children of Mexican descent, and 20% combination of Black, Asian, and others.
I always wondered why the majority of the Jewish (and Asian) children excelled in school and went on to college, while the majority of Mexican-American (and Black) children did poorly and did not go on to college. The answer to this question struck me one day in the early part of my junior high school days when I was waiting my turn in the counselor’s office for advice on what type of academics would best suit my future.
There were two boys ahead of me and I could hear the conversation the counselor had with each. It was taken for granted by the counselor that the first boy who was Jewish would go on to college after he graduated high school.
And it was taken for granted by the same counselor that the second boy, who was Latino, would probably never attend college and might not even graduate from high school. With all good intentions, the counselor advised the Latino boy that he should take more practical classes such as wood shop and electric shop so that he would ready himself for a job when he either graduated or dropped out of high school.
Educators didn’t want to “waste” their time on Latinos they believed possessed an inherent inability to learn. It was a self fulfilling prophecy — since excellence wasn’t expected of them, Latino children did not excel. If teachers don’t expect excellence, they will get what they expect.
That was then. Today, little has changed — Latino children are singled out as a group to receive bilingual education while very few other non-Spanish speaking groups of immigrant children students are afforded this “benefit.” The other groups learn English the way I and millions of other immigrant children did — through immersion.
Despite the clear ruling of Proposition 227 resulting in significant academic gains for Latino children, most of California’s education ideologues have made clear their message that Latino children can’t learn like other language-minority children.
Nothing exemplifies the legacy of perceived Latino inferiority better than when former Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ruben Zacarias was interviewed on Los Angeles’ Spanish language Univision Television Network on July 8, 1997.
Zacarias said in Spanish that he approved of bilingual education and gave the TV viewers this example of why: he asked the viewers to imagine how American children would fare if they were put in schools in China not knowing anything about the Chinese language — drawing a parallel to Spanish speaking children entering American schools without knowing the English language.
But Zacarias failed to explain to the viewing audience how Mandarin Chinese immigrant children manage to learn English in quick order without bilingual education when they enter LAUSD’s schools — the LAUSD has never had Mandarin Chinese primary language bilingual education.
Zacarias’ message to Latino parents was clear: Their children are less intelligent than immigrant children from other ethnic backgrounds.
There’s a difference between that counselor I overheard years ago and the education experts in Sacramento. That counselor meant well and didn’t know any better.
Hal Netkin is a Van Nuys community activist and the former volunteer researcher for Ron Unz and the Proposition 227 campaign. Write to him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.