Debate Loud as Vote Nears on Bilingual Ban

DANA POINT–Crisofero Fabian, a restaurant cook from Mexico and father of three, believes that the immigrant students in this seaside town must learn English to have a shot at a better life. Everyone at R.H. Dana Elementary School agrees. The question is how.

First-grade teacher Eliana Escobar is a true believer in bilingual education. Principal David F. Gerhard wants to give children more English instruction but preserve the bilingual safety net.

And Fabian? He favors an initiative on the June 2 ballot that would drastically limit bilingual education in California public schools, although two of his children are in bilingual classes here and doing well.

“I want them to teach more English,” Fabian said in his native Spanish. “Just in English. We can give them Spanish at home. The children should learn to read and write English well. They’re going to need it.”

Conversations with educators and parents here echo the passionate debate in schools and communities statewide as Proposition 227 heads for a vote. The measure is also being closely watched in other states struggling to teach large numbers of immigrant children.

Education groups have lined up en masse to denounce what they call a dangerous, unproven experiment and the strongest threat in a generation to a controversial system of language instruction. Initiative proponents say it is bilingual education that has been the failed experiment.

Beyond the rhetoric, something basic is at stake: the education of many of California’s most vulnerable children, often poor and often let down by public schools.

Drafted last year by Silicon Valley software businessman Ron K. Unz, Proposition 227 has grabbed a commanding lead in public opinion polls on the strength of a simple–critics say simplistic–message: “English for the Children.”

The initiative calls for students with limited-English skills to receive about a year of intensive English lessons and then move into regular classes. Few exceptions would be allowed, and educators who repeatedly violate the law could be sued. It would take effect two months after passage.

California is the nation’s most important bilingual education battleground, with 1.4 million students who have poor command of English, far more than any other state. Nationwide, there are more than 3 million such students.

Because four out of five limited-English students in California speak Spanish, the issue is of prime importance to Latino leaders. Some view Proposition 227 as a sequel to propositions 187 and 209, passed by voters in 1994 and 1996, respectively. Those measures struck at illegal immigration and affirmative action and provoked national debate.

“Hasn’t the state had enough? Do we need another racially charged, sharp-edged debate about a hot-button, political wedge issue?” asked Charles Kamasaki, a vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino rights organization.

‘An Unbelievably Powerful Wedge Issue’

Ambivalence about bilingual education runs deep in American history. English-only advocates have frequently sought to suppress the classroom use of German, French, Spanish and other tongues in the name of national unity. The pro-227 campaign raises a similar theme on its World Wide Web site:

If approved, Proposition 227 would be the first state voter initiative to limit the use of students’ native languages for instruction in public schools. It would also mark the end of an educational era in California that dates to 1967, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a law ending the state’s requirement for English-only instruction.

Unz, 36, who ran for governor in 1994 as a maverick Republican, acknowledges that he has never inspected a bilingual classroom. He dismisses as “garbage” some research that supports bilingual education. And he denies that his motivations are anti-Latino or anti-immigrant, citing strong support in polls from people like Fabian. “This has been an unbelievably powerful wedge issue–except that it divides the leaders in California from everybody else in the state,” Unz said. Indeed, Unz has virtually no support from the state’s education establishment, even from those who are skeptical of bilingual education.

The school board in southern Orange County’s Capistrano Unified School District this month voted to scale back native-language instruction after administrators determined that their limited-English students showed little progress after as many as seven years of bilingual classes. The new program sets an exit goal of one or two years.

Yet on the same night that the school board struck a blow against bilingual education, it voted unanimously to oppose Proposition 227.

The message was: Yes, the system is broken, but don’t tell us how to fix it.

“I have more of a middle-of-the-road stance,” said Gerhard, the R.H. Dana principal. “We need to do something different to try to transition our kids more quickly. But it concerns me that my school board is losing power if this initiative is going to pass.”

Proposition 227 was born after a 1996 boycott of a school in the downtown Los Angeles garment district. Community activist Alice Callaghan led a group of Latino parents that year in a protest publicizing their discontent with bilingual education and their demand that the district switch more than 80 children into English-only classes.

“Education is their only hope for a better future for their children,” Callaghan, a self-described liberal, later wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. “The first step is learning English.”

Unz says the boycott prompted him to make inquiries about bilingual programs statewide. He found a situation ripe for an initiative.

A state law mandating bilingual education had expired in 1987, the year after California voters overwhelmingly approved a proposition that declared English the state’s official language. Subsequent efforts by the Legislature to replace the law had failed repeatedly. There was a legal vacuum.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education maintained a pro-bilingual education policy although the state faced an increasing shortage of qualified bilingual teachers. The shortage is now estimated at more than 20,000 and is especially critical for Vietnamese, Hmong, Cantonese, Pilipino, Khmer and Korean, the most spoken minority languages after Spanish.

Several school districts chafed at state regulation that they contended had no legal justification. Starting in 1996, four Orange County districts were granted permission to opt out of bilingual education altogether. This month, the State Board of Education voted unanimously that such permission would no longer be required, in effect shifting power into local hands.

A self-made millionaire, Unz could afford to hire the professional signature gatherers needed to qualify an initiative for the statewide ballot.

He obtained early support from Latino educators such as Gloria Matta Tuchman, an Orange County schoolteacher now running for state superintendent of public instruction, and Jaime Escalante, a former Los Angeles high school calculus teacher made famous in the movie “Stand and Deliver.” He also persuaded the state Republican Party to endorse the initiative against its leadership’s wishes.

Unz’s opponents have gathered a much longer list of endorsements, from state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin to the state PTA to dozens of school districts. But from the start, opponents have struggled to fulfill two necessities for an effective campaign: money and a message. Money is in short supply because educators this year are waging campaigns on several fronts. The message is complicated by the difficulty of defending bilingual education in terms voters understand.

Researchers who support bilingual education say many students need instruction in their native languages as they are learning English, or else they will fall behind. Bilingual education advocates have made that point over and over. But a statewide Field Poll released Friday shows Proposition 227 is leading 3 to 1 among likely voters and, perhaps more troubling for the opposition, is widely known. What voters do understand is that Latino students are dropping out of school in alarming numbers, and that many limited-English students are not moving into mainstream English classes.

Unz blames bilingual education, in large part, for both ills. But despite his claims, only three in 10 limited-English students in a given year are in formal bilingual programs. Twenty percent get informal help in their native language, and the rest are taught almost entirely in English, by choice or necessity. State records show, too, that many school districts with English-intensive programs perform no better than their bilingual counterparts.

Teachers in Fighting Mood

Faced with these challenges, the anti-227 campaign is seeking to put the spotlight on Unz. Its Web site advises supporters: “DO NOT get into a discussion defending bilingual education.” It is better, the opposition campaign says, to attack the initiative as an unwanted, costly mandate. If it passes, some teachers are talking about civil disobedience.

“I do sense that teachers are in a fighting mood. It probably is worse than any threat they’ve ever experienced,” said James J. Lyons, executive director of the National Assn. for Bilingual Education in Washington.

“I’m encountering teachers who say, ‘If it becomes the law, then I will become a lawbreaker. I cannot go back to looking at children and seeing the spark of learning dimmed in their eyes as I speak to them in a language that they don’t understand.”‘ At R.H. Dana Elementary, Escobar says she knows that her bilingual class is making headway. On a recent day, she was teaching her first-graders how to form palabras (words) and oraciones (sentences). Escobar switched freely between English and Spanish as she made her points, and the students followed closely.

At one point in a grammar lesson, Escobar asked the class what it would do with a pot of gold, and Daniel Lagunes raised his hand. “Maestra, yo se, yo se! Comprariamos un carro nuevo,” he said. (“Teacher, I know, I know! We would buy a new car.”) Daniel, Escobar said later, had recently arrived from Mexico and was rapidly catching up to his peers. With another year of bilingual instruction, she predicted, he would be a candidate for the mainstream.

“It’s a painful subject,” Escobar said of the initiative. “I can’t even begin to explain to somebody the pain and fright that children are going to feel if they are thrown into an all-English classroom.”

Comments are closed.