Five months after Californians approved a ballot initiative to end bilingual education, and a month and a half into the school year it was to take effect,
bilingual education is still around.
Some local superintendents are seeking district-wide waivers from having to implement Proposition 227. Some principals are requesting "alternative"
or "charter" school status, which would free their institutions from many of the regulations most public schools face. Waiver requests are tied up in the courts, but at least 2 schools have received the "charter"
designation and at least five have become "alternative" schools,
which has thus far allowed them to preserve dual-immersion programs in English and in Spanish.
Other educators have taken it upon themselves to keep alive a scaled-down version of bilingual education. Some districts have openly stated that instructors who teach non-English-speakers 60 percent in English and 40 percent in Spanish are in compliance with the provisions of Proposition 227. And in districts where there is no such support, individual teachers have continued to use least some foreign-language instruction in their classrooms.
The 60-40 ratio could put districts in trouble. Proposition 227 sponsor Ron Unz it is "completely illegal" for districts to permit the use of a foreign language 40 percent of the time, because the law is worded to say instruction must be "nearly all" and "overwhelmingly"
in English. That means "98 percent or 99 percent or 97 percent, "
according to Unz. Individual teachers too, risk lawsuits for not being in compliance with the law. If sued they would have to defend themselves, with their own money, and are personally liable for any financial penalties a court might impose.
Yet they persist. Not in open public defiance of Proposition 227, which could be ruinous, but quietly, in the confines of their classrooms . Which is heroic. If anybody is going to sue, it should be the parents of teenagers who are now required, by law, to sit in English-only classrooms where they cannot understand their instructor. Where they will not get an education.
The entire rationale for Proposition 227 is flawed from the start. Pedagogical questions ought to be settled by school boards, district superintendents,
principals, the teachers themselves — with feedback and advice from parents.
These are the people in the trenches, who are best suited to determine which teaching approach is best to help which children succeed.
Alas, in California it was settled by a public vote, and we now see the consequences. It’s not John Q. Voter who has to face a classroom full of 16-year-old immigrants who do not know English and teach them biology. It’s the teacher who must do that. And no biology teacher should be forced to explain the difference an animal cell and a plant cell in a language students cannot understand. To what purpose? Why should voters dictate that students be placed in courses where they will not learn anything?
One problem is that Proposition 227 and the whole question of bilingual education has been framed as an debate pitting those who want their children to learn English against those who do not. That is not what it is. The purpose of a good bilingual education program is to teach students English, and to teach them subjects like biology, geometry and history in their native language until they learn English. The idea is to permit non-English speakers to keep up with their English speaking peers in the same grade.
It is true that many bilingual education programs fail kids, either because of a lack of books, materials and trained instructors, or because–bilingual education supporters must admit this too — some teachers underestimate how quickly students, particularly young children , learn English.
But since bilingual education can work if well implemented, it should be fixed, not ended. And the people doing the fixing should be educators,
not the public. What California needed was a stricter way to hold educators responsible for the failure of school children, in bilingual education or not. When schools fail to perform, they are most certainly accountable to the public. But the instructional method teachers use in a classroom is simply not something that ought to be dictated by a public referendum.
Roger Hernández 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.