Language Lessons: The debate over Bilingual Education

Hispanics favor controversial proposal

LOS ANGELES – Alice Callaghan and Michael Jones get a little righteous when they talk about bilingual education in California.

Callaghan works in a converted clothing factory in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, tutoring children of nearby garment workers.

Jones is the principal of a school 365 miles north of Los Angeles in Watsonville, just a short hike from the strawberry and mushroom fields where his students’ parents toil until sunset.

The two are battling over the future of bilingual education in California, and perhaps the nation.

Callaghan, an ordained Episcopal priest, wants to end bilingual education. She’s lobbying for a June referendum that would make instruction in any language but English illegal.

Callaghan and supporters of Proposition 227, also called “English for the Children,” said the program hurts immigrant children’s chances of succeeding in mainstream America.

“It is the worst thing to happen to this state. It’s the worst thing to happen to poor immigrant children,” she said.

Jones is trying to bolster the program, which he said is blamed unfairly for the neglect most immigrant and poor children face in schools.

“Everyone should be angry about the state of education,” Jones said. “But the solution is not to narrow the possibilities of things that we can do to address the problems. The solution is to expand, to improve these things.”

Computer software entrepreneur Ron Unz, a 36-year-old self-made millionaire, proposed the initiative last year after reading about Callaghan’s successful boycott to force teachers at Ninth Street Elementary School to limit bilingual education.

The proposition Unz wrote with Callaghan’s help would virtually eliminate bilingual programs in the state and outlaw non-English instruction.

So far, Unz’s camp of conservatives, Hispanics who believe in English-only teaching and converted liberals appears to be winning.

Bilingual educators in the U.S. are on notice. Teachers in Texas, New York, Florida and elsewhere say events in California will influence policies in their states.

“This is a universal issue, not a McAllen, San Antonio or California issue,” said Ramon Billescas, director of the migrant students program at the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District in South Texas. He donated $20 to the “No On Unz” campaign in February at a bilingual education conference in Dallas.

“This is about the rights of children to learn the best way that they can,” he said.

Most polls show support for the initiative, particularly among Hispanics.

An October 1997 Los Angeles Times poll showed 80 percent of a survey of 1,389 adult Californians supported Unz’s plan to focus resources into an English immersion program. And 84 percent of Hispanic voters favored it.

In February, the Latino Issues Forum, a nonprofit San Francisco-based advocacy organization, released a statewide poll showing 53 percent of 620 Hispanics were against the elimination of bilingual education.

In March, a Field Poll survey had Latino support for the initiative at 61 percent and overall support at 70 percent.

Unz claims bilingual education has a 95 percent failure rate because, he argues, only 5 percent of children with limited English skills tested well enough last year to be labeled English-proficient and exit the program.

Critics say his logic is faulty.

“That would be like saying that a high school is failing because its freshmen or sophomores aren’t graduating with the seniors,” said Mara Quezada, president of the California Association for Bilingual Education.

The numbers reflect new students who recently arrived in the country, bilingual education backers say, as well as students expected to leave the program, which enrolls only 30 percent of the state’s nearly 1.4 million children with limited English skills.

Unz’s initiative proposes to educate all students with limited English proficiency in a “sheltered English immersion” program for a “period not normally intended to exceed one year.”

He defines sheltered English immersion as “an English acquisition process for young children in which nearly all classroom instruction is in English, but with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language.”

What he’s calling for, said James Lyons, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education, is a return to a pre-civil rights era method of dealing with immigrant children.

In the 1960s, Hispanic activists protested the instruction immigrant children received in parts of the country.

In English-only classrooms, the activists argued, children lagged academically because they did not understand English. Students and teachers were punished for speaking Spanish.

“It would be comical if it weren’t so hurtful to children,” Lyons said. “(Unz) wants to dictate how children are taught, and he doesn’t even have a background in education, nor does he have any children in school.”

Other educators fear Unz’s alternative is untested and vague.

“There is not a single school district that is implementing this type of a program that he has suggested,” said David Dolson, manager of the Office of Language Policy and Leadership for California’s Department of Education. The office is charged with maintaining data and research for California schools working with limited-English proficient children.

Dolson said the proposal lacks a clear definition and would be hard to implement.

“It’s written like an essay and not a law,” he said. “He uses phrases like ‘overwhelmingly in English.’ How do we know what overwhelmingly in English is supposed to mean? It could mean 100 percent for some and 50 percent for another.”

Bilingual education opponents appear to be winning, defenders said, because voters largely are unhappy with California’s education system and don’t understand bilingual education.

Roselyn Rodriguez, a San Jose city parks and recreation leader who lives across from an elementary school where bilingual teachers are trained, said she never heard of the initiative.

At first, Rodriguez defended bilingual education. She changed her mind after learning the initiative would limit instruction to a year. After being read a definition of bilingual education, she changed her mind again.

Bilingual education in California is meant to educate children in academic subjects in their own language while they learn to speak English.

Ideally, children enter a bilingual program in kindergarten and learn reading and writing in their native language. Teachers cut back on the native language instruction annually so, eventually, a child can thrive in English-only classrooms.

Bilingual programs differ from state to state. In general, districts tend to either limit the instruction to grade three, or through grade six.

“I will vote in June,” Rodriguez said. “But I don’t think most people are informed. And I don’t think they are aware that they’re trying to do away with ( bilingual education).”

While the debate rages in California, educators in other states are watching and waiting.

Unz predicts if the initiative passes, “the rest of the states in the nation will fall like dominos.”

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