A year ago, advocates of English as California’s official language were cheering their landslide victory in a statewide vote on the issue. They looked forward to ending the state’s bilingual education program.
As it turns out, the law adopted in the voter-initiated referendum has not had its intended effect, and bilingual education continues, even though the law establishing it has expired.
The proposition on the ballot, which was approved by 73 percent of the voters in November 1986, was in the form of a simple statement with no qualifications and explanations.
Until someone can test the law ”there is a certain amount of flexibility and interpretation.” said Susie Lange, spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.
”Initially, it created a lot of tension around the issue,” she said, ”but we didn’t see that any activities going on in schools should be affected.”
”The truth of the matter is that what was put on the ballot doesn’t have a lot of explanations or qualifications,” she said.
Says Intent of Law Skirted
Bilingual education’s survival infuriates people like Sally Peterson, an elementary school teacher for 25 years who is president of the Learning English Advocates Drive.
”What has happened is they are shaking out what was the intent of the law,” she said. ”Everybody thought it took care of English as the official language, but it wasn’t defined specifically, and they have been able to kind of ignore it.”
The legislation governing the state’s transitional bilingual education program expired in June. This puts California in the curious position of having English as the official language and having no law on the books mandating bilingual education, while in reality a very specific bilingual program continues unabated.
Theories on Survival
How has bilingual education survived despite the 1986 vote, and despite the lack of a law mandating it? ”Bilingual education is a successful financial institution, and it is like a sacred cow in California; to oppose it you immediately become a racist,” Ms. Peterson said. ”We think the public has been sold a bill of goods.”
Non-English-speaking students are placed in the transitional bilingual education program. After they become proficient in English, they are switched into the regular curriculum.
The movement against California’s bilingual education gained considerable momentum last year when members of the Los Angeles teachers’ union voted overwhelmingly to seek abolition of the program.
”Over the last few years many of us in education have had concern about the success of the transitional bilingual education program,” Ms. Peterson said. ”We feel that a program that puts emphasis on a native language other than English delays the child’s ability to learn English. We say educate them in English but do it with care and support.”
Twelve other states have statutes making English as their official language.