LOS ANGELES?Las Familias del Pueblo community center sits on a dirty boulevard in the downtown garment district of Los Angeles, filled with squealing children running around with blunt scissors and construction paper until their immigrant parents pick them up after a long day toiling at sewing machines. Their caretaker is an Episcopal priest who calls herself a “Teddy Kennedy liberal.”
The center may seem an unlikely place to begin an extraordinary battle to dismantle bilingual education in California. But it was here that the first shots were fired when a group of frustrated immigrant parents pulled 90 children out of the nearby Ninth Street School to protest their enrollment in a curriculum that offered far more Spanish than English.
“Home is for speaking Spanish, sure, but school is for learning English, and so we did the boycott,” said Juana Jacobo, a garment inspector from Mexico, who pulled two children out. “It’s much better now. They’re speaking so much English I can’t understand them.”
The boycott lasted for almost two weeks and garnered intense media attention. It was watched particularly closely by a multimillionaire Silicon Valley software impresario named Ron Unz, a failed Republican gubernatorial candidate with an interest in public policy and extreme dislike of bilingual education, which he calls “completely illogical, if not loony.”
Unz took his money and his organization, gathered almost half a million signatures, and placed on this June’s ballot the “English for the Children” initiative, now known as Proposition 227. It would place immigrant students in one year of English immersion and then move them into regular classes unless their parents secure a waiver. Opponents of the measure say it will be a humiliating disaster. But early polls show it has widespread support.
The coming war over bilingual education, in the bellwether state where the practice was formalized with a 1974 Supreme Court ruling on a case in San Francisco, touches on one of the most elemental issues in California: how best to accommodate — or control or assimilate — the surging population of immigrants, especially Spanish speakers from Mexico, in a state that will see its white population lose majority status before the end of the century.
The anti-bilingual initiative is clearly the next big issue from California, the harbinger state. Backers hope that if the proposal succeeds here, the anti-bilingual movement will spread to other states in a nation that is undergoing the second-largest wave of immigration since the turn of the century.
For many Latinos, and especially their political advocates, bilingual education is a question of respect and clout. They remember the days when Spanish was a forbidden language and a child could be slapped for speaking the language of his forebears on a playground.
Art Torres, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, has described Proposition 227 as “another attack on the Latino community.” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called it “immigrant-bashing.”
But for other Spanish-speaking parents, and many whites and others in the state’s cultural mosaic, bilingual education is a failed 30-year-old experiment that actually divides the citizenry, creating ethnic and linguistic ghettos, and denies immigrant children the one tool they most need to succeed in America, a rapid immersion in English. Indeed, the measure appears at a time when Latino political clout is in the ascendant. The last two speakers of the California State Assembly, for example, are Latino.
“The bilingual education system is just an utter, complete failure,” said Unz. “It goes against common sense. Its supporters will say that, oh, in a perfect world, with enough money, with better teachers, it would work. But it’s completely loony. A young child can learn English in months. A year max. And to deny them that is the worst kind of paternalism.”
California has the largest number of students — some 1.4 million, or one in four — who speak little or no English. Their language at home is typically Spanish, although in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, immigrant children enter school speaking more than 100 different tongues. Nationwide, about 3.2 million of America’s 46 million public schoolchildren are not proficient in English, a figure that has doubled in the last 10 years.
About 410,000 children are in the special bilingual programs, which operate in a number of ways. The most controversial seeks to teach the children subjects in their native languages while slowly — about 6 percent a year — moving to all-English classes. The state education agency estimates a shortage of 20,000 bilingual teachers, who are paid bonuses of up to $5,000.
Education theorists state that bilingual education, with proper resources and good teachers, works well. But many parents with experiences in the overwhelmed school districts in cities such as Los Angeles are wary, if not hostile.
“They don’t even have enough books for all the children. How can they teach them two languages?” asked Bruela Gonzalez, a garment worker who has three children in the Ninth Street Elementary School.
“Like most people, I assumed bilingual education made sense,” said the Rev. Alice Callaghan, the Episcopal priest who runs Las Familias.
“I’m from the left. I’ve marched in the street. I was ‘right on’ for bilingual ed. But you know what? I’ve seen kids in here who had been in bilingual education for four, five, six years. Their homework was all in Spanish. They couldn’t speak English, and their Spanish was a mess. And I had to conclude that I didn’t care what the politically correct take was.”
Callaghan says she never imagined she would be working with a Republican like Unz to dismantle bilingual education. An advocate for immigrants, many of them here with dubious documentation, she usually has more in common with Latino activists on the left, but on this issue they are divided.
The debate over bilingual education is creating a number of such strange bedfellows, even as it again threatens to polarize the state as did previous controversial propositions against affirmative action and social services for illegal aliens, respectively Propositions 209 and 187.
Some Latino leaders see in the measure “a third strike” against their constituencies. A few blocks away from Las Familias center, Thomas Saenz, legal director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), believes ending bilingual education unfairly denies immigrant children the chance to succeed.
But opinion over the measure is still unsettled — especially among Latinos. It was a blow to pro-bilingual advocates when the best-known teacher in the state, Jaime Escalante, came out in favor of ending the practice.
Escalante is famous as the calculus teacher from Garfield High School who was depicted in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” which dealt with the struggle and ultimate success of young barrio residents attempting to excel at advanced mathematics. Escalante has been called a sellout for his stand, and though opponents of the measure are careful to praise him first, they usually add, as Saenz of MALDEF did: “He’s not the person I’d go to to learn about English instruction. . . . He’s a math teacher. Ron Unz got him because he got a headline out of it.”
The polls are giving muddy answers. An early sampling taken late last year by the Los Angeles Times found overwhelming support to end bilingual education, including 84 percent of Latino voters. But a more recent poll by the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion found a majority of Latino parents — about 68 percent — favoring bilingual education. Both pollsters said the differing answers depended on how the questions were asked.
“The bilingual issue is a no-win for both parties,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank in Claremont. “It must be giving their strategists nightmares.”
This is why: Republicans are damaged goods in the eyes of many Latino voters after Propositions 187 and 209, anti-immigrant rhetoric and the campaigns of Republican standard-bearers Robert J. Dole for president and Pete Wilson for governor, who both made appeals to white voters by focusing on illegal aliens invading the state.
“There’s this fear it could be seen as another initiative by some Republicans who want to beat up on Latinos,” said state Republican Party chairman Michael Schroeder. Even Schroeder, who served as attorney for former representative Robert K. Dornan (R) in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) by claiming massive voter fraud by an immigrant advocacy group, is shying away from the initiative to end bilingual education.
“I’m not opposing it or endorsing it,” Schroeder said.
ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE
California’s bilingual education debate heats up as U.S. schools teach millions of students with limited English proficiency (LEP).
Students with limited English proficiency, in millions
1985-86: 1.5 million
1995-96: 3.2 million
In 1993-94, the most recent school year for which rankings are available, nine of the 15 districts with the highest LEP enrollments were in California.
Districts with highest LEP enrollment, and percentage of students in each district with limited English
1. Los Angeles 46%
2. New York 15
3. Chicago 14
4. Dade County, Fla. 13
5. Houston 25
6. Santa Ana, Calif. 69
7. San Diego 26
8. Dallas 22
9. Long Beach, Calif. 34
10. Fresno, Calif. 32
11. Garden Grove, Calif. 43
12. San Francisco 29
13. El Paso 28
14. Montebello, Calif. 26
15. Glendale, Calif. 52
SOURCE: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education