WASHINGTON – California, a bellwether for the nation on issues such as affirmative action and property taxes, is about to make an assault on bilingual education.
California voters are expected to approve a ballot initiative Tuesday that would effectively dismantle the state’s bilingual program. Polls have consistently shown strong support for the proposal among both Anglos and Hispanics.
A Los Angeles Times poll conducted May 16-20 found that 63 percent of likely voters favor the initiative.
While passage of the referendum would almost certainly draw legal challenges from the federal government and groups in California, conservatives in Congress are counting on a big vote against bilingual education to boost their efforts to end federal support for bilingual programs.
“The political momentum is going our way,” said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First. “Parents have been demanding English for their children. Now the politicians are catching up. “
Although bilingual programs vary widely from school to school, their general aim is to help students with limited English by offering instruction in the students’ native language. At least 1.3 million students take bilingual classes in the United States, including more than 440,000 in Texas.
The California initiative, Proposition 227, would replace bilingual education with a “sink or swim” approach. Students with limited English would be placed in English immersion classes for a year, then shifted to regular classes unless they obtained a special waiver.
The proposal has ignited an emotional debate that has little to do with education theory. The language issue has become a flash point in a much larger dispute over the nation’s cultural identity.
While one side talks of the need for a unifying national language, the other champions the benefits of a multilingual society. More than 3 million students have limited English skills, and immigrant children are the fastest-growing segment of the school population.
“The English-only nuts are people who are offended by hearing people speaking another language. It’s as simple as that,” said Rep.
Matthew Martinez, D-Calif. “They want to think that the only intelligent people in this world speak English. ” Although both sides in the dispute agree that a repudiation of bilingual education in California would give bilingual critics new momentum, no one expects an immediate rollback of bilingual education in other states.
Bilingual education is widespread and growing in Texas, and educators say they don’t expect the California vote to change their plans.
Fort Worth school trustees recently approved a $ 3.9 million overhaul of the district’s bilingual programs that will concentrate efforts on grades 1-3 and gradually increase the amount of English instruction. Currently, bilingual programs are offered through the fifth grade.
Other districts have expanded traditional bilingual programs. In El Paso’s Ysleta Independent School District, which is 85 percent Hispanic, bilingual classes are offered in all grades.
Ysleta Superintendent Anthony Trujillo said the district’s goal is for every student to graduate fluent in two languages.
“This whole discussion is a no-brainer. Is it better to know one language or two, or three? ” Trujillo asked. “We are producing students that are superior to those educated only in English. Who do you think will get the better job in the global economy? “
But some of the opposition to bilingual education in California has come from the very people it is supposed to help. The drive for California’s anti-bilingual initiative began in an impoverished immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles.
In early 1996, about 90 children boycotted bilingual classes at the Ninth Street School for two weeks until school officials agreed to provide more English instruction.
“The parents are garment workers. It’s very simple to them. If the schools don’t teach English, their kids don’t have a chance,” said Alice Callaghan, who runs Las Familias del Pueblo, a storefront community center that served as boycott headquarters. “They don’t want their kids working in sweatshops or selling tamales on the corner. “
News accounts of the boycott caught the attention of Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley multimillionaire who became the driving force behind Proposition 227.
Parental discontent isn’t limited to California.
In 1995, a group of about 150 families in Brooklyn, N.Y., sued Community School District 32 over the district’s policy of retaining Spanish-speaking students in bilingual education for up to six years.
The suit was dismissed a year later, but some parents are as skeptical as ever.
“They don’t give enough English. The kids are not really getting good in English,” said Marino De La Cruz, who had his children removed from bilingual classes. “It’s going to be very difficult for them in the future because they don’t have a strong base. “
De La Cruz, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1981, said he favors some bilingual education, but “not year after year after year. “
To be sure, many immigrant parents welcome bilingual education. A classroom full of English speakers can be a terrifying place to a child who does not know the language.
Educators who favor bilingual instruction say the teaching method gives immigrant students the solid academic footing they need to master English, math and other subjects.
“Bilingual education is simply a tool for children to learn English,” said Mary Helen Berlanga of Corpus Christi, a member of the State Board of Education. “The ultimate goal of every bilingual program is to get the child proficient in English. “
But bilingual supporters also concede that many bilingual programs have been hampered by bureaucratic snafus and a lack of trained teachers.
As part of an effort to defeat the California proposal, Education Secretary Richard Riley recently urged schools to push students out of bilingual education after three years. He denounced the much tougher California plan as “an educational straitjacket” that ignores individual student needs.
If California voters approve the measure, House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Sugar Land said he intends to seek a vote this summer on his bill to eliminate the federal Office of Bilingual Education. The $ 200 million federal program offers grants and other help to local bilingual programs.