Bilingual Education Rift Divides State Teachers Union

Schools: Newsletter criticism of those on extremes of the issue ignites a clash. Backers say the program is being made a scapegoat. Opponents call them "zealots."

SERIES: BILINGUAL BACKLASH. A closer look at immigrant education. One in an occasional series

The re-examination by Californians and their leaders of efforts to educate the rapidly rising population of children not fluent in English spread to the state’s largest teachers union Sunday with a display of disharmony that some feared could hasten the dismantling of the $400-million program.

The emotionally charged issue of bilingual education surfaced during floor debate at the quarterly meeting of the governing council of the 240,000-member California Teachers Assn. at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. Some teachers labeled colleagues “bilingual zealots,” while some bilingual activists lamented that the union was twisting the issue to scapegoat their programs.

Gerald Anderson, president of the CTA’s Fresno local, told the group that he is worried that the debate’s angry rhetoric could make it appear that the powerful union is backing away from bilingual education, thereby playing “right into the hands of the right-wing, which would like to dispose of the whole thing.”

Union leaders said the CTA’s support of bilingual education remains strong. But they have struggled to persuade some union members of that since the publication last month of a controversial article in the organization’s normally benign newsletter.

The article acknowledged the methodological debate over bilingual education that has ebbed and flowed among educators for at least 15 years. But it went further and criticized extremists on both sides: those who oppose any instruction not in English in subjects such as science or history, as well as those whose goal is preserving a child’s native language.

The article, written at the behest of outgoing CTA President Del Weber, blamed the latter group for marooning “tens of thousands of California students in ‘bilingual’ programs for six, seven or even nine years.” That record, the article continued, has “crippled the Spanish-speaking child’s educational development” and fueled criticism of bilingual education by parents, politicians and teachers.

The number of students unable to learn completely in English has grown by more than 40% in the past five years. Such students now occupy almost one in every four desks in the state’s classrooms, which makes serving them more costly and complicated.

“These kids are not learning English and they are being handicapped,” said Wayne Johnson, the organization’s vice president.

The CTA’s latest involvement in the issue started last year, when the state agency that awards teaching licenses raised the standards for about 50,000 classroom instructors with some pupils not fluent in English. Under the new policy, the teachers would have to take college classes and pass a rigorous test to prove that they were qualified to meet their students’ needs.

But a CTA-sponsored bill that went into effect this year eased the requirements, creating a two-year window in which those teachers — some with years of classroom success behind them — could comply without attending college classes.

Many bilingual activists and state education officials opposed the legislation, however, saying it let teachers off too easily. And it fell to those same state officials to write the rules for implementing the bill, with the advice of some of the strongest supporters of bilingual education.

A skeptical CTA, in turn, complained that those officials were undermining the intent of the legislation by making it far too difficult for teachers — including some only a few years from retirement — to retain their credentials and, potentially, their jobs.

“Some of the bureaucrats . . . have gotten out of control and have lost sight of what is realistic as far as teachers are concerned,” Johnson said.

Last week, the California Credentialing Commission finally enacted the rules, but only after the CTA managed to remove what it considered the most onerous of them — one that would have allowed any district in the state to reject teachers’ credentials if their training did not meet its approval.

But the CTA’s position on the relatively obscure credentialing issue caused bilingual activists within the organization to label their own union as “the enemy,” Anderson said.

Mercedes Quintana-Barragan, a Montebello bilingual teacher who came to the two-day CTA meeting with a delegation of teachers opposed to the union’s position, said the CTA is protecting its members at the expense of children. “They keep saying they want regulations that are . . . teacher friendly,” she said. “What about regulations that are kid friendly?”

Carmen Angeles, a teacher in the Sweetwater Union High School District in National City, said she felt that the union was ignoring “all the hard work bilingual educators have been doing under incredible opposition.”

“If this was a credential issue, I don’t know why bilingual education was used as a scapegoat,” she said.

The association’s debate comes as the state’s policy on bilingual education is being examined in several forums. The State Board of Education has been considering a new policy to give local school districts far more flexibility to choose the method with which they serve the needs of non-fluent students. State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin has indicated that she is rethinking bilingual education and considering recommending greater choice for local districts.

Meanwhile, several bills are working their way through the Legislature, designed to give districts and parents greater say in bilingual programs. On Sunday, the CTA council changed its position from opposition to neutral on the proposed legislation.

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