March 15, 1998 — With the vote to eliminate bilingual education in California less than three months away, Hispanic voters are finally coming to their senses.
Early polls showed overwhelming support for Proposition 227, the ballot initiative sponsored by businessman Ron Unz that seeks to practically abolish bilingual education in the state. Under the proposal, all courses would be taught in English only, even in classrooms full of kids who do not speak English. Only parents who manage to wade through a bureaucratic morass and obtain a special "waiver" would be able to enroll their non-English-speaking children in bilingual classes.
Sounds like something most Hispanics would oppose. Yet nearly 70 percent of Hispanic parents favored the measure in polls taken last year. In some cases, Hispanic support was even higher than the statewide average. It seemed Hispanics were actually against bilingual education, a program designed with the needs of immigrant kids in mind.
Now a new Field poll, taken in February, shows significant erosion of that support among Hispanics. Overall, 66 percent of Californians said they would vote for the Unz initiative, down from 69 percent in December. But the number of Hispanics who said they backed it dropped from 66 percent to 46 percent. That’s still a plurality, one point higher than the 45 percent who opposed the end of bilingual education. But the 20-point drop in just two months is immensely significant.
What is going on? The fact that large majorities of Hispanics supported the measure in the early days shows Latino parents understand it is of vital importance that their children learn English. This puts away the myth, spread by anti-Hispanic loonies in the English-only movement, that Latino parents are somehow different from other immigrants in that they don’t care if they or their children learn English.
The once-solid Hispanic support for Unz also speaks of the extremely poor quality of bilingual education in California. Bilingual education theorists have said it takes ten years for a child to learn English well enough to be mainstreamed to English-language classrooms, an absurd conclusion that is all too often put in practice. No one ought be surprised that Hispanic parents oppose a system that prevents their kids from learning English as rapidly as possible.
Besides, bilingual education, well managed or not, is not as prevalent in California as Unz and his followers would lead one to believe. Just 30 percent of the state’s 1.4 million students classified as Limited English Proficient are actually enrolled in bilingual education programs. The rest are either forgotten in the back of a classroom or already enrolled in the type of English-immersion courses that Unz wants to see everywhere.
In other words, bilingual education is not the problem in California.
The real problem is that there are too many districts with bad bilingual programs, and too many districts with no bilingual programs of any kind.
The precipitous drop in Hispanic support for the Unz initiative shows Hispanic voters are finally starting to make the distinction. Bilingual education, when implemented properly, is the best system to help kids who do not speak English learn English and keep up with their studies. The idea behind bilingual education is for kids to learn subjects like history and math in their native language for part of the day and receive intensive instruction in English for the other part of the day. In a good program,
they are mainstreamed to full-time English as soon as possible, perhaps as little as a year for very young children, two or three years for high school kids.
Teenagers, particularly, need this transition period. What’s the use of sitting in a U.S. history class where you can’t understand the teacher?
Unz’ ballot measure would force kids to do just that. California needs to fix bilingual education, not end it. Hispanic parents are starting to understand that that the medicine is worse than the disease. Other parents, it seems,
are yet to be convinced.
Roger Hernandez is a nationally syndicated columnist and Writer-in-
Residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He can be reached via email at TRMG60A@prodigy.com.