Twenty-two years ago, when I was 5, my classmate Ralph helped me learn
English. It wasn’t what he said. In fact, I couldn’t understand a word
he said as he pinched me mercilessly during story time, as small
children sometimes do. I just sat there with tears streaming silently
down my face because I didn’t know how to tell him to stop.
Several months before, in May 1976, I had returned to the United
States from Taiwan, where I was sent at the age of 10 months to be
raised by my grandparents for a few years. As a result, I learned
Chinese as my first language, and even began kindergarten in Taiwan
before suddenly finding myself on a plane crossing the Pacific.
I met Ralph and some 30 other 5 year olds when I began kindergarten
again in Pacifica, a little town south of San Francisco best known for
its fog. To be honest, my utter lack of English skills did not stop me
from understanding a lot of messages my classmates were giving me. I
certainly learned very quickly that Ralph either 1) didn’t like me, 2)
wanted me to move away from him or 3) both of the above.
Still, I couldn’t say anything to him then. However, as I continued
through elementary school in all-English classes, words just seemed to
stick in my mind. My parents encouraged in me a love of reading that
rapidly expanded my vocabulary and grammar skills, and while still in
elementary school, I was reading and writing above grade level. By high
school, I was far more comfortable with my verbal skills than with my
math or science aptitude.
Advocates of native-language instruction, which has been commonly and
often purposefully mislabeled “bilingual education,” no doubt would cal
my experience atypical. Those advocates now defend districts — efforts
to ignore laws like California’s Proposition 227 by insisting that it
takes seven to 10 years to learn English fluently. Even more
preposterously, they claim that younger children have a more difficult
time learning languages than do adults.
For anyone who has ever been amazed by how quickly children soak up
languages, or for anyone who has ever wistfully wished that they could
learn as effortlessly as they did when they were younger, the academic
theories behind bilingual education have provided one of the most
glaring proofs of the fundamental disparity between ivory tower
intellectuals and real life and common sense.
By any practical measure, “bilingual education” has been a dismal
failure — one that 61 percent of California voters sought to change
with this June’s passage of Proposition 227. It’s a pity that there’s
still so much resistance to reform and the expressed will of the voters
in many of the state’s largest urban school districts like San Francisco
and Oakland. Educators there have either openly declared opposition to
meaningful change or are spending scarce resources and time finding
creative ways to avoid compliance.
What they still haven’t addressed is the fact that 95 of every 100
students labeled Limited English Proficient (LEP) at the beginning of
the school year fail to learn enough English to transition out by the
end of the school year. The fiscal cost of this failure (let alone the
social and emotional cost) has been hundreds of millions of dollars per
year. Perversely, school districts and teachers’ unions have had
incentives to force as many children as possible into native language
classes and to keep them there, because each bilingual-certified
teachers got extra pay and each LEP-classified child meant more
Although native-language instruction was enormously wasteful
financially, it’s truly tragic legacy lay in wasted human potential. Not
surprisingly, the LEP label was stuck mostly on poor and immigrant
children. Parents who wanted their children to be taught primarily in
English often found it impossible to have them reasigned to mainstream
classrooms, and even kids who could speak English were put in
native-language programs because of Hispanic or Asian surnames.
Children really couldn’t learn or improve their English while being
taught predominantly in Spanish, Chinese or the dozens of other
languages spoken by California’s colorful immigrant mix. The bottom
line: for decades, poor, immigrant kids have not been given an
opportunity to develop the language skills they have needed to succeed
in American society. Remarkably, the public interest groups that have
traditionally supported immigrant rights and the rights of the poor have
sided against their constituents and with the special interests that
would keep them and their children down. (The Organization of Chinese
Americans printed, without qualification, an article expounding on the
“dangers” of eliminating so-called bilingual education because English
was difficult to learn. Ironically, the article itself was printed in a
English-language newsletter for Chinese Americans.)
Among some Latino groups, it seems that bilingual education itself is
an end in itself to be protected at all costs. One activist at a meeting
I recently attended suggested that even if Prop. 227 ultimately benefits
minority children, the symbolism of bilingual education for Latinos
meant that its removal would be an assault against the racial group. The
activist then called on Prop. 227 supporters to “heal” those wounds.
What that gentleman missed, and what California voters and parents
understood, is that native-language instruction itself was the wound
that needed to be healed. For too long, it has been a cancer that has
drained scarce resources, created and reinforced racial divisions, and
disproportionately impacted the poorest and most politically powerless
in American society.
Like communism, bilingual education began with the best of intentions
and failed — but it has continued to feed on support from
self-interested cadres or fanatical ideologues even as it has left
thousands of victims in its wake. Through the initiative process,
California voters decided to excise the malignancy and to start healing
the lesions by passing Prop. 227.
Already, many school districts and administrators have refused to
comply with the law of the land. Fortunately, Prop. 227 includes a
remedy against those educators who would willfully ignore it — a
provision that allows aggrieved parents and kids to hold those officials
personally liable. As a corporate lawyer, I have a professional aversion
to courtrooms and lawsuits — but as an outraged citizen, I can’t wait
till someone gives these modern day Bull Connors their comeuppance.