WASHINGTON—Hispanic leaders see bilingual education as a vessel that has ferried countless Latinos from isolation into America’s mainstream.

Now they fear a well-financed effort to end bilingual education in California public schools will set future generations of Hispanic students there adrift and spread to other states.

"Hopefully, our community will see this as another case of immigrant bashing and will react," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

In California, schools are required to teach English to non-English speakers and to make sure they learn math, science and other subjects in their own language, if necessary. The program cost the state $319 million last year.

A proposal by a group called "English for the Children," led by Ron Unz, a political conservative and computer software multimillionaire, would virtually end state financing for bilingual education of about 500,000 students. It would prohibit immigrant pupils under age 10 from learning academics in their native language.

The group is collecting the needed 433,000 signatures to qualify for the state ballot next June.

"The current system of bilingual education simply doesn’t work," said Unz, who made an unsuccessful run for California’s Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1994. "It fails the very children it was designed to help."

Proponents of the measure say teaching children in both English and their native language delays their ability to pick up English. They say children who are not fluent in English should be taught by an "immersion" technique in which only English is used by the teacher.

Becerra counters that while immersion could help students learn English faster, it would slow their learning in other subjects.

"How can the child master science or math or social studies while they are trying to learn a language at the same time?" he asks.

While advocates and opponents of the Unz measure supply plenty of personal anecdotes on how bilingual education helps or hinders students, there is little independent research.

Preliminary findings of a George Mason University study of 42,000 bilingual education students over 10 years indicate the students equaled or surpassed native English speakers after four to seven years in a quality bilingual program.

The debate is being closely watched by educators far beyond California.

Emma Violand Sanchez, who supervises language training for public schools in Arlington, Va., said she’s found that even among children who can speak English, incorporating their native language in the classroom may help them learn.

"If we want cognitive and reasoning skills to be developed for other subjects, the use of native languages helps," said Sanchez, who also is a language professor at George Washington University.

In Arlington, where nearly a quarter of the 18,000 students speak Spanish or another primary language other than English, children attend classes conducted in English or their native language, depending on their needs.

Sanchez worries that the total English emersion method Unz advocates might fail to take advantage of their greatest strength knowledge of their native language.

Defenders of bilingual education say the Unz proposal threatens to fan anti-immigrant sentiments seen in California during the battle over Proposition 187, which would deny education and medical benefits to illegal immigrants.

The passage of Proposition 187, which hasn’t taken effect yet due to court challenges, led other states to adopt similar policies and emboldened federal lawmakers to reduce aid to legal immigrants. Its opponents worry that California will now become the springboard for a similar movement against bilingual education.

"If we lose bilingual education in California today, we could easily lose it everywhere tomorrow," said Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund.

Nearly 2 million students are enrolled in bilingual education classes nationally, the Education Department estimates.

Whether bilingual education is worth protecting is subject to debate. Even supporters of the program say its success varies widely among schools.

"When you have good teachers and support staffs, it works," said Donna Christian of National Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington think tank that supports bilingual education.

Unz has spent as much time denying his measure is anti-immigrant or anti-Latino as he has educating voters on the ills he sees in the current system.

"I won’t let anyone who was involved in fighting for Prop 187 within 10 feet of this," Unz said. "We’ve found in our research that Latinos support this because they want their children to learn English as quickly as possible."

Public opinion on Unz’ proposal appears to be divided among Hispanics.

"It’s split almost down the middle from the feedback we get," said Lavonne Luquis, president of LatinoLink, an online Latino interest magazine based in California. "My personal experience with bilingual education was good, but I have heard all kinds of stories."

Education has emerged as a key issue for Hispanic leaders. A recent Education Department study showed Hispanics drop out of school at far higher rates than non-Hispanics and leave school at earlier ages.

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