The proposed “English for the Children” initiative, sponsored by millionaire businessman Ron Unz for the June ballot, is being interpreted by the media and touted by its proponents as an “anti-bilingual”
It is much more than that. It seizes on popular feelings against “bilingual”
education in order to do away with all approaches to teaching non-English-speaking children except one: It imposes English-only teaching on every classroom in the state, tying the hands of parents, principals, teachers, superintendents and school boards. The end result will be increased educational costs to correct its failures, as well as legal costs for the damage to the children it pretends to help.
Immigrant children do learn English. The largest long-range study of immigrant students, recently completed by Princeton and Michigan State researchers,
found that these children were quick to embrace English over their parents’
native language, and often had better grades and lower dropout rates than their fellow American-born students.
The Unz measure fraudulently appeals to the immigrant hunger for English by depicting existing education programs as anti-English. Look at the distorted media accounts of polls interpreting strong support for his proposal in the Latino community as evidence of Latino hostility toward bilingual education.
What immigrant parent would oppose a proposal supporting the common sense need to learn English?
The Unz crowd claims that the initiative restores “parental choice.”
It is a false choice. Parents would have to petition for alternative instruction,
and if fewer than 20 children per grade level were found eligible for that waiver, their only other choice would be to transfer to another school.
Worst of all, the waiver is only for children already fluent in English,
older than 10 or found to have “special needs.” Their waivers would then require a school superintendent’s approval and review by the local and state boards of education.
Last year, after the Orange Unified School District terminated non-English assistance for 1,500 of the estimated 7,000 eligible students, petitions from 800 parents were totally ignored. If 800 parents requesting “choice”
could not influence a school board, how will this bureaucratic parent waiver make a difference?
Inner-city parental choice already is often hamstrung by too few classes to choose from or bureaucratic arrogance. These schools also often suffer from uncertain funding and insufficient staffing. Unz’s anti-choice initiative would only worsen matters.
Unz’s prescription, “sheltered” English “immersion,”
is reminiscent of my student experience during the 1960s at predominantly Latino schools in East Los Angeles. It was a time when crude English-only methods sent the non-English speaking to the back of the classroom. In an educational twilight zone of diminished individualism, many students found themselves speaking a confused English-Spanish amalgam. More than 60% dropped out in search of dead-end jobs or the security of a delinquent barrio gang.
Do we really want an education code that forces together children of different ages, grades and languages into an English-only class for one year, and then pushes them into the sink-or-swim school environment of a generation ago? How will classes of non-English-speaking children and their parents communicate with English-only teachers? Should teachers daring to communicate in a child’s native language be subjected to lawsuits?
These concerns, among many others in this one-size-fits-all proposal,
mean more segregation, less choice, a further centralized bureaucracy, increased public school liability and less productive education at greater costs.
Like previous destructive initiatives hostile to access for immigrants,
minorities and women, this deceptive English-learning endeavor is bloated with ideology and bureaucracy. Its top-down mandate violates the conservative philosophy of less government intrusion, local control and more parental choice. It is another example of false symbolism and false promise, the simplistic notion that we can address a complex policy issue with the wave of an initiative.
Ralph C. Carmona Is a Former Member of the Uc Board of Regents