LOS ANGELES—When Angie Papadakis first attended school in America, she felt estranged from the other children because she only spoke her native Greek.
Fifty years later, when Papadakis joined the California State Board of Education in 1984, she quickly jumped into a decade-old debate about bilingual education — and joined the side that would like to dismantle the state’s current program.
An immigrant who opposes sweeping efforts to educate immigrants in their native tongue is just one of the quirks in California’s prolonged bilingual education war.
”If you hear and speak the language, you’ll learn it,” said Papadakis. ”If my teachers had spoken Greek to me, why would I have bothered to learn English?”
Legislators, teachers and parents agree that immigrant children who speak little or no English, and who account for more than one-eighth of the state’s students, must receive instruction in whatever language they speak.
But few agree on when, or how, these children should be introduced to English. The battle has turned into a long-playing political fracas. After years of a strict Democratic-sponsored bilingual school system, the tide has turned in favor of a laissez-faire bilingual policy favored by Republicans.
Papadakis and her allies, including Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, believe the current system, which began in 1976 and officially expired June 30, carried a good idea to dangerous extremes.
Critics of the current system charge that qualified applicants for teaching posts were turned away because they couldn’t pass second-language tests and immigrant children often were kept in native-language classes far too long.
”We have to have some special programs for students with limited English,” said Papadakis. ”We can’t expect them to grasp English just like that.
”But we’ve been assuming that they cannot pick up English at all. When children come to school, they are not literate in any language. Linguistic experts agree that from birth to age 14, kids are very adept at picking up any language they hear.”
Bilingual proponents, led by Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, agree that the system may have gone too far but they fear that reform measures may go to the other extreme.
”There has to be more flexibility,” said Susan Lange of the state Department of Education. ”But without some kind of parameters, a lot of school districts just won’t accomodate these kids.
”The whole reason behind bilingual requirements was that students with limited English were far overrepresented in special education classes,” she said. ”They were dropping out and flunking out because their language prohibited them from progressing.”
This summer, the bilingual controversy sparked a showdown between the liberal Brown and the conservative Deukmejian.
When the existing legislation expired June 30, Brown forged a compromise extension bill and brought it successfully through both the Assembly and the Senate. The bill, aimed at keeping a moderate bilingual education system alive through 1992, was vetoed by Deukmejian July 24.
”I believe it is important for these students to learn English as quickly and as effectively as possible,” Deukmejian said in his veto message, ”so that they may enjoy the full benefits and opportunities of a meaningful education.”
”Once again,” Brown responded, ”this governor has demonstrated clearly his lack of concern for the special educational needs of (immigrant) children in California.”
Deukmejian’s veto does not end bilingual education in California. Under a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, school districts with large immigrant populations must provide some bilingual education and the state will continue to set aside funds for that purpose.
But the veto signals an end to a radical statewide experiment in mandatory bilingual schooling. Unless Brown can come up with a new proposal, each school district will be free to choose the form and content of its bilingual instruction.
Bilingual proponents know they are on the ropes but they say they will keep negotiating to salvage some form of bilingual education for immigrant children.
”We now have to get in there and work really hard,” said Mia Alexander of the California Association for Bilingual Education. ”All we want is to help students coming in and coping with cultural shock. Yesterday, they were in a Mexican village. Today, they’re in downtown Los Angeles. They need a buffer.”
Bilingual reform proponents say they also are fighting on behalf of immigrant students and they agree the battle isn’t over yet.
”There’s already a great deal of opposition to my (school board) reappointment from Hispanic groups who misunderstand what I’m saying,” said Papadakis. ”I’m an immigrant myself and I think too many students have been bankrupted by years of native-language instruction.
”And a lot of Hispanic parents agree with me — they’ve told me, ‘We’re not going back to Mexico. We’re Americans now.”’