Battle Heats Up Over Bilingual Education

SACRAMENTO—In a softly lit, Confederate-gray conference room a short march from the state Capitol, Benjamin Lopez is preparing his troops–15 crusaders for bilingual education–for all-out war.

Teaching children in Spanish or other non-English languages has been under assault for almost two years–by California voters who passed the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187, by a results-oriented State Board of Education, which gave local districts leeway to try other methods, and by the perennial critics, those cultural conservatives who view bilingual education as a nearly treasonous waste of money.

But the next major battle begins this week, when the California Legislature will debate proposals that Lopez, a canny, stubborn lawyer and longtime champion of bilingual education, says would “destroy 25 years of progress.”

In meetings up and down the state, he has been telling bilingual program directors like these, dozens of whom trek to Sacramento any time the issue comes up, that they must not give ground. They must make the case for teaching children in the language they hear at home–the language of their dreams–in the strongest possible terms. Negotiating, he tells them, would amount to slow surrender.

“If we hold tight and persevere this year, the chances are very good that we can probably feel a lot safer the next five years,” says Lopez.

It is a political strategy that for 15 years or more has proved remarkably successful in protecting one of the state’s most controversial educational programs, one that is supposed to serve more than 1.2 million California students whose first language is Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Cambodian or one of the dozens of others spoken by recent immigrants.

In essence, the program–enshrined in state policy as the ideal–advocates teaching children in their home language for seven years or longer to build a strong foundation of academic skills and fluency in two languages.

But that strategy has failed to address the educational crisis that has provided foes of bilingual education with powerful ammunition. Despite recent progress, the state still has 20,000 fewer bilingual teachers than it needs, meaning a quarter of the students not fluent in English are left to struggle in classrooms with no special help whatsoever. Nearly one-third of Latino students, who make up by far the greatest proportion of those not fluent in English, drop out before graduating from high school. And fewer than 5% of Latinos are eligible for the University of California when they do graduate.

Only one-third of the students who are learning to speak English come in contact with teachers fluent in their home language. Most, if they get any special help at all, get by only with the help of a bilingual aide or special classes in English for part of the day.

Public Debate

On Wednesday, at a legislative hearing on a bill sponsored by moderate Republican Assemblyman Brooks Firestone of Los Olivos, the passionately held claims and counterclaims regarding bilingual education are expected to get their most public airing in a decade. The hearing is expected to prompt a draining debate likely to range far beyond educational methodology to issues of cultural identity, opportunity and racism.

“They want to go back to 1954 and say, ‘Separate is equal,’ ” said Lopez of his opponents, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decision. “The hell with that.”

Those arguing for change are equally adamant. “It’s frightening to see that what a lot of advocates of native language instruction are advocating is the status quo, and the status quo doesn’t work around the state,” said Jeannine L. English, executive director of the Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency.

In a critical 1993 report, the bipartisan commission called for replacing state Department of Education methodological mandates with local flexibility to employ a variety of instructional approaches that have been shown to work in different settings. The commission also urged the creation of a testing program to track the progress of nonfluent students and close what many people say is a huge stumbling block in the bilingual debate–a lack of performance data.

Those recommendations are embodied in Firestone’s bill. Bilingual education advocates managed to get a similar bill by Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) watered down last year but it is still alive, awaiting action in the Senate. This year, with Republicans firmly in control in the Assembly, Firestone’s bill is expected to be sent quickly to the Senate. There, where Democrats are in charge, it faces an uncertain welcome.

California’s ambivalence about bilingual education has long made it hospitable to opponents–mainly cultural conservatives, who decry the use of languages other than English in the schools.

Now, however, with the numbers of non-English speaking students continuing to rise by the equivalent of 1,500 or more classrooms a year, proponents are facing attacks from more politically daunting sources: moderate legislators such as Alpert and Firestone who say their goal is improving such programs; Latino parents, such as those at Los Angeles’ 9th Street School who organized a boycott of classes out of concern that their children are not learning enough English to join the economic mainstream, and even teachers, some of whom fear losing their jobs because they speak only English.

Given the breadth of the opposition, some bilingual education supporters say it’s time to accept a new political reality–that their ideal of teaching children in their home language supplemented by daily English lessons will never be achieved.

“We have to find some middle ground,” said Melinda Melendez, a state Senate consultant who was among those who pushed for pioneering bilingual education laws beginning in the late 1970s. “The sad part about saying that . . . is that it’s without regard to the soundness of the educational theory I believe in. It’s more of a pragmatic, politically expedient statement.”

But Reynaldo F. Macias, a professor at UC Santa Barbara and director of the Linguistic Minority Research Institute, disagreed and said bilingual education supporters must become even more aggressive.

“The attacks are really motivated by the attempt to eliminate non-English languages and . . . the strategy is to criticize the bilingual programs and create cultural panic,” he said.

To fight back, he said, supporters should argue that being bilingual benefits the nation’s economy, not just individual job prospects or civil rights.

Lopez and his allies, the 6,000-member California Assn. of Bilingual Educators and other groups, are not yet willing to abandon what is, for them, an article of faith. “We have drawn a line in the sand,” he said.

California’s bilingual education law, one of the most far-reaching and specific in the country, expired in 1987. But the advocates cling to the fact that the law’s essential elements have been preserved. Firestone’s bill would eliminate those rules, and opponents fear that districts would revert to satisfying far less stringent federal standards.

Teaching children only in English “just seems to me is a huge waste of potential,” said Paula Jacobs, director of bilingual education for the Davis Unified School District.

Like most districts, Davis serves most of its non-English speaking students with aides and special lessons in English. And Jacobs said she sees the toll it takes, dulling the enthusiasm of students who fall behind because they do not understand.

Advocates Gear Up

Although bilingual education research has produced widely different results, a recent study out of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., seems to bolster the supporters’ arguments that students who spend five to seven years learning mostly in their own language do better that those enrolled in other types of programs.

To fight back, and get that point across, the advocates are planning to lobby hard in the Capitol while acknowledging problems with current programs–emphasizing that the state and many districts have failed to devote sufficient resources to making the programs work.

But they also are polishing the image of programs that rely heavily on a child’s home language. The California Assn. of Bilingual Educators has hired a full-time public relations consultant, and supporters are inviting legislators and members of the media and the public to visit their programs.

“The classroom teachers are doing a good job, and they’re being stymied and frustrated because . . . we don’t have the resources to go out in a campaign that would bring the success stories into the open,” said Rosalia Salinas, a San Diego County bilingual education administrator who is the association’s president.

One school district considered by the group to have all the elements needed for success is Montebello, which serves several formerly middle-class communities to the east and south of downtown Los Angeles.

Spanish is the first language for half of the district’s 30,000 students and, for nearly 10,000 of them, it is also the main language of instruction. Most also receive special lessons in English and hear English spoken during time devoted to art, music and physical education.

“Obviously our goal is for the kids to learn English, but we don’t push English,” said Silvina Rubenstein, an association officer who heads the district’s bilingual program. “We’ve learned a lesson. Many years ago kids were pushed into English, and they didn’t have literacy in their own language.”

That emphasis, which runs counter to the idea that the purpose of bilingual education should be to teach children to speak English as quickly as possible, is obvious at Bell Gardens Elementary, where nearly 1,000 out of the 1,200 students in grades kindergarten through fourth speak Spanish and are taught mostly in that language by fully licensed, bilingual teachers.

In a kindergarten class, no English words are apparent except a text in small letters that is posted too high for the children to see. Teacher Velia Hernandez is coaxing her shy pupils to describe in Spanish their drawings, which include a rainbow, a round-faced figure dressed in red and a yellow sun.

A combined class of third- and fourth-graders, however, indicates that students do learn English. Some of the essays on the walls about Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are written in English. During an English-language reenactment of the legend of St. Patrick, the students eagerly wave their hands to get a chance to respond to questions.

Many parents like the mixture of Spanish and English. “I consider Spanish to be a treasure,” said one parent, Irene Rosas. “It gives us two possibilities, two windows, two worlds . . . and those who are opposed to Spanish are racists who want to keep us down.”

Still, statistically the school’s performance looks troubling–not a single child moved last year from instruction in Spanish to instruction in English. In fact, district-wide, fewer than two of every 100 nonfluent students each year–among the lowest figures in the state–were able to meet the district’s five-part criteria for leaving special instructional programs behind. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, and statewide, about six of every 100 students make that move annually.

Los Angeles pioneered the so-called “late-exit” method favored in Montebello. But even Los Angeles, recognizing the direction of the political winds, is revising its program to emphasize the importance of students making the transition to instruction in English.

“It’s frustrating that we get into a political debate about instructional strategies,” said Mark Slavkin, president of the Los Angeles Board of Education. “Elected leaders and taxpayers ought to ask just one question: Are they learning English and are they up to speed in their basic subject areas?”

Rubenstein said students in the district’s bilingual education program have higher test scores than their English-speaking peers, even if many are not fully fluent when they graduate.

“We’re not concerned as much about when they learn . . . in English as we are about the skills they learn in their own language,” she said.

Defending the Bill

But Laura Martinez, an ambitious sixth-grader at Montebello Intermediate School who is in a class that is still struggling with English, worries that she has been held back even though she is proud to be bilingual.

“If I had started learning English in kindergarten, I think I would have a better vocabulary and read better and write better,” she said to a visitor recently, while poring over essays her peers had written on the Roman myth of Proserpina. “My goal is to speak, read and write like if all my life I’ve been speaking English.”

Firestone’s bill would allow districts such as Montebello to continue what they are doing. But it also would make it easier for districts to try other methods. The state Board of Education adopted a narrow version of that idea in revising its bilingual education policy last summer. So far, only one district, the Westminster district in Orange County, has taken advantage of the option to get permission to teach children in English with the help of bilingual aides.

Firestone defended his bill, saying it “does not in any way attack the need for bilingual education.”

“This is a very reasonable, rational approach to a very real problem,” he said. “The fact is that the numbers of students not fluent in English is growing steadily and the number transitioning into English is unacceptable.”

Firestone’s bill has prompted passionate responses from both sides. Jacobs, the Davis bilingual program director, said she was particularly appalled that the legislation, AB 2310, would reduce the amount of training teachers are required to take. “It’s so absurd,” she said. “How can the legislators be so stupid. They’re saying, ‘Let’s just legislate what’s bad for kids.’ “

But nearly 200 of Firestone’s constituents wrote to him on the issue, most applauding his efforts. “I cannot think of one good reason for sustaining the current system but I can come up with dozens of reasons for suspending it, not the least of which are common sense and fiscal responsibility” a Carpinteria constituent wrote.

Bilingual Education Primer

Bilingual education takes several forms, and research is in conflict over which one works best, partly because comparative data do not exist for California schools. Generally, programs fall into one of the first two categories:

* Immersion: Students are taught in English, usually with simplified vocabulary and sometimes with support from a classroom aide fluent in their home language. Students move into mainstream classes quickly but may lack a firm academic foundation and may falter later. Non-fluent California students served: about 45%.

* Transitional bilingual education: Instruction is in student’s home language, with special lessons in English. In the most extreme form, it can take seven years for students to move into mainstream classes. A recent major study found that this is the best guarantee of long-term academic success. Downside: It requires fully bilingual teachers, and effectiveness may be reduced when students move from school to school. California students served: about 28%.

* Submersion: No special services. Although no research supports this approach, about 27% of California students not fluent in English are taught this way.

Sources: California Department of Education; Little Hoover Commission; “Meeting the Challenge of Language Diversity,” a report from BW Associates, Berkeley.

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