In the early 1970s a group of Chinese parents sued the San Francisco Unified School District for not providing approximately 1,800 non-English-speaking students of Chinese ancestry with English language instruction.
The case, known as Lau vs. Nichols, was decided by the Supreme Court in 1974 and proved to be a landmark decision for bilingual education. While the case did not mandate bilingual education programs, it did for the first time shift national attention to its importance. The decision also helped spur the development of bilingual instruction programs across the state for non-English-speaking students.
Those programs, however, are now at risk of being eliminated by a controversial ballot initiative in California that seeks to restructure the state’s approach to bilingual education.
The initiative, English for the Children, is being spearheaded by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz who, along with his supporters, recently acquired enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the June ballot.
For Asian Americans, the Unz initiative threatens to abolish successful existing programs and newer programs that are just beginning to address the diversity and complex needs of the Asian American community. Some APA educators worry that the initiative will dismantle California’s existing bilingual education programs and replace them with a program that will set students up for failure.
But the Asian American community–estimated at more than 10 percent of the state’s total population–is far from unanimous in its opposition to the initiative. Some APA leaders, including state Treasurer Matt Fong, believe that it’s time to rethink the approach to bilingual education.
Asian American voters themselves appear to be leaning in favor of the initiative. According to a December field poll, while 71 percent of Californians support the initiative, 55 percent of Asian/Other respondents said they would vote in favor of the proposal.
A growing number of Asian American advocacy and educational organizations hope to reverse those percentages by the time the initiative goes to ballot. Organizations such as Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California are beginning to mobilize and voice their opposition to the proposal in an attempt to warn Asian Americans that the initiative could be equally debilitating to Asian American students.
Although Spanish-speaking students represent the largest percentage of limited English-speaking students in California, Asian Americans rank second. Of the 1,381,393 limited English-speaking students in California, over 200,000 Asian Americans, or 12 percent, are limited English-speaking students.
"Other than Latino students, the rest are of Asian Pacific descent," said Betty Hung, staff attorney at the APA Legal Center of Southern California. "And at least 43 percent of California’s K-12 population that is Asian Pacific American is categorized as limited English proficient." Ý
The Unz initiative, if passed, would require schools to eliminate their current bilingual education programs and replace them within 60 days with Unz’s proposed sheltered English immersion plan. The plan proposes that children be taught the English language for one year in English only before transferring back to mainstream English classes.
Many APA organizations that oppose this method of teaching English believe that the APA community as a whole, does not fully recognize the impact the initiative will have on its children. Groups such as the APA Legal Center of Southern California view the next five months as a critical education period.
"We’re in the process of educating people in the Asian American community to let people know that the initiative impacts us. This impacts educational access and opportunity and our youth. It is crucial that we disseminate that message to our community."
Other Asian American advocacy groups, including CAA, have also taken a firm stance against the initiative. CAA is among the more active organizations in the campaign against the initiative. Its recent efforts involve uniting with Latino organizations and other advocacy groups against the initiative and protesting at Unz’s software company.
"Unz is targeting this as a Latino issue. He claims that Latino families have asked him to bring up this proposal. We’re working within the Asian Pacific American community to show him that it isn’t true," said Lisa Lim, executive director of CAA.
"[The Unz initiative] is very misleading, of course everyone wants their children to learn English. But this isn’t the method we think is appropriate," Lim said. "We need to help Latinos and Chinese children cultivate the English language as much as they can. And this puts us back toward pre-bilingual education programs," Lim said.
One APA government official who has entered the bilingual education debate is hoping to give voters this June a second alternative to the Unz initiative.
California state Assemblyman Mike Honda is currently writing a constitutional amendment that would require Unz’s proposal to undergo a series of tests to verify its merits.
"What [Unz] is suggesting is a gross insult to all the students … This is one person’s idea of what should be done in terms of a methodology, one person who isn’t even a teacher … it is untested experimental methodology that he would impose on our youngsters. That is equivalent to a pharmaceutical company putting an untested drug on the public market to see what would happen," Honda said.
While many educators admit that current bilingual education programs are far from perfect, they are quick to assert that viable and successful bilingual education programs do exist, and that wiping out current efforts would prove detrimental to students.
The Commodore Stockton Elementary School in San Francisco, which houses 13 Chinese bilingual classes and 10 Spanish bilingual classes, would be severely affected by the initiative. Roughly 90 to 95 percent of the students entering kindergarten are limited English-speaking students.
Principal Helen Chin, who benefited from bilingual education programs as a youngster, said that eliminating bilingual education would do more harm than good.
"The Unz initiative would impair children’s ability to learn in school, not only [their ability to learn] English. It’s just like [taking someone] to a foreign country and asking them to get it," Chin said. "I think that if there are things in bilingual education that needs to be improved on, then [we] need to work on those improvements."
The John Yehall Chin Elementary School is yet another San Francisco school that relies heavily on teaching children English through a mixture of both English and the student’s respective primary language.
Much of the 3-year-old school’s success is attributed to its ability to tailor its programs to its students, according to principal Samuel Louie.
"Kids learn at different rates … You can’t teach the child who has just come off the plane from Hong Kong the same way you would teach a child who has a limited English vocabulary. We believe in educating kids in ways that best meets their needs," Louie said. "To eliminate bilingual education would be a big mistake."
Educators, including Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction for California, remain staunchly opposed to the initiative, in part because of the lack of freedom the initiative gives to local school districts.
"Common sense would strongly suggest that immigrant students come to America with varying backgrounds in core academic subject matter, experiences, levels of ability … local school districts should be given the flexibility to design a program that best fits the needs of its students," said Henry Der, deputy superintendent for the external affairs branch of the state Department of Education. "The superintendent believes local school districts should have lots of flexibility."
While supporters of the Unz initiative acknowledges the importance of retaining a sense of one’s culture and native language, they argue that many of the state’s bilingual education programs are not serving their purpose and are costly.
"We know for a fact that the present situation just flat out isn’t working, and tinkering with it does nothing but make a terrible system just a little more terrible," said Steve Schmidt, spokesman for state Treasurer Matt Fong. "People who oppose this initiative will try to make this about race, or about politics, or about everything [other] than what it should be about, and that is education."
Garden Grove city councilman and state Assembly candidate Ho Chung, who believes that current programs are too costly overall and fail to teach children English, took an active part in helping Unz acquire enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the June ballot.
"I’m not opposed to good bilingual programs, I’m opposed to bilingual programs we have today," Chung said. "There is something wrong … The bilingual programs we have today need fixing."
But in cities like Modesto, Calif., the Unz initiative threatens to annihilate bilingual education programs that are just beginning to accommodate newer Asian immigrant populations such as Hmongs and Cambodians.
"It usually takes a while for enough teachers to come through the pipeline to represent those groups," said Edmund Lee, director of state and federal programs for Modesto City Schools "We’re just seeing now Hmong bilingual and Cambodian bilingual teachers coming through the universities."
Lee, whose responsibilities also involve overseeing the district’s bilingual education programs, hopes that come June, Asian Americans will have taken a closer look at the initiative and will exercise their right to vote.
"From a historical point of view [the initiative would return us], probably to the same thing our relatives went through," learning English in the public schools, according to Lee. "The only thing I can say is you’re going to just have to get out and vote … and we need to educate people so they can cast their vote against the thing."
Number of Limited-English-Proficient (LEP) Students in California Public School Districts by the Top 15 Primary Languages, 1997