Potential Impact of California's Prop. 227

In California, Proposition 227 may drastically change the way bilingual education is handled in the state. Experts from both sides of the issue discuss its potential impact.

GUESTS: Ron Unz, Carlos Garcia, Lloyd Houske, Jaime Zapata, Alice Callaghan>

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BYLINE: Bobbie Battista

BATTISTA: And with all due respect to the last senator, we are going to change gears here. Up next in a moment, ask this man why he believes schools should be all English all the time. We’ll be back in a moment.


BATTISTA: (Speaking Spanish). Can you understand what I’m saying? Does bilingual education promote ethnic diversity, or is it a waste of money?


RON UNZ, ENGLISH FOR THE CHILDREN: The children leave the public schools not being able to read English or write English or even speak English properly. And that’s a disaster.

LLOYD HOUSKE, ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PRINCIPAL: If I had to think of having youngsters come in this school and not be able to use their own language, I don’t know how they would ever acquire the academic skills necessary.


BATTISTA (voice-over): In any language, Proposition 227 would spell the end of bilingual education in California public schools. Like Proposition 187, which sought to cut public services for most illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, which dismantled affirmative action programs in public employment and university admissions, California’s latest ballot initiative is sparking a national debate.

The head of Unavision, a leading Spanish language media company, is funding its TV campaign against 227.


ANNOUNCER, POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT: Proposition 227 establishes a program to intensively teach children to read and write English as soon as they begin school.

ANNOUNCER, POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT: President Clinton says no on 227.


BATTISTA: Well, a Field Institute poll shows most California voters, 61 percent, favor eliminating bilingual education. However, that is fewer than the 71 percent that favored the bill last month.

I know you’ll forgive my rusty Spanish at the top of the segment there, but here to talk about this issue today are Ron Unz, chairman of English for the Children. He wrote Proposition 227. Also, Carlos Garcia, superintendent of the Fresno Unified School District. Welcome to both of you.



BATTISTA: Ron, as we said, your name is on this initiative. Why do you think it’s necessary?

UNZ: Bilingual education was a well-intentioned program that began 20, 30 years ago but it’s been a complete and dismal failure. It doesn’t work. A quarter of the children in California public schools today don’t know English. And each year, only five or six percent learn English. Ninety-five percent of the children who start a given school year not knowing English have not learned it by the end of that school year. And that’s failure in any language.

BATTISTA: So how does it work?

UNZ: Well, it doesn’t work.

BATTISTA: No, no, I mean how does 227 work? In other words, you have kids coming into the school system…

UNZ: Exactly.

BATTISTA: … who are limited in their English knowledge. How do they matriculate into the system? How do you do it?

UNZ: It’s a very simple idea. Our initiative would take those children who don’t know English and put them in a short-term intensive English language immersion program to teach them English as quickly as possible. Once they’ve learned enough English to be able to do regular school work in English, they would be moved into the regular classes with all the other children. And from young children 5 or 6 years old, it should only take them a few months or at most a year to learn enough English to be mainstream.

BATTISTA: Now if they don’t learn as quickly as you think they’re going to learn, is somebody going to stay with them?

UNZ: Absolutely. If they don’t learn English after one year, they can be kept in that program for a longer period of time. But most of these children, these young 5 and 6-year-old children, can learn English very, very quickly and easily.

BATTISTA: OK, what happens if you enter the school, the public school in say, the tenth grade?

UNZ: What I personally believe is that when you’re talking about older children, children who are 12 or 13 or 14, you can make a very reasonable case in favor of bilingual education, teaching children that age in their native language while they’re learning English so they don’t fall behind academically.

Now most immigrants I know don’t agree with that. They think children even of that age should be taught English as quickly as possible, but at least it does make a plausible case. Our initiative makes it possible for parents of children of any age who want to place or keep their children in bilingual instruction to get a waiver to do so. But it’s much easier for the parents of older children. If the child is 10 years or older, the parent simply has to go down to the school and meet with the principal and teachers and decide together whether the child would do better in a bilingual program or an English immersion program.

BATTISTA: Carlos Garcia, you admit that the current bilingual system doesn’t work, but you don’t think this is the answer, do you?

GARCIA: Well, I admit that a portion of it doesn’t work. I mean, Mr. Unz generalizes quite eloquently. The fact of the matter is that only 30 percent of all the children in California who are limited English proficient students are in bilingual programs. So what’s the excuse for all the other kids who aren’t in bilingual programs? Why aren’t they far exceeding everybody else. I mean, the reality is that you can’t paint everything with one brush. This one size fits all approach is absurd. People learn language at different rates. There are some students that can master it in one year, but it’s ridiculous to assume that most students will especially what I’m talking about is academic language. You could learn oral language out in the playground, but to learn academic language so you can succeed in school, that would be like asking Mr. Unz to go spend a year in China, and by the end of that year, be able to read all Chinese, be able to take tests in Chinese, and that just doesn’t happen in the real world.

BATTISTA: Let me gauge our audience here. Catherine, your thoughts.

CATHERINE: Well, I see the bilingual programs that we have as they exist today aren’t working as well as they could. But I don’t think that an English immersion program is the answer. I don’t think that children who are coming from other countries are ready to be completely immersed in the English language. They’re dealing with major culture shock among many other factors.

And I think the money and effort spent on creating an English immersion program could be spend creating a gradual change over from Spanish or whatever the native language is to English. And that would be much more effective.

UNZ: Can I respond to that?

BATTISTA: Go ahead.

UNZ: There’s a misconception that most of the children who don’t know English in schools come from other countries. That’s not the case. Over half of the children we’re talking about are native born Americans.

In the Santa Barbara school district, 80 percent of the children in bilingual programs were born right in Santa Barbara. These are children who were born here, and in many cases, they already speak some English when they start school, but they’re placed in bilingual programs.

And in California, bilingual education is a synonym for Spanish only instruction. The children receive 30 minutes or an hour of English a day and everything else is in Spanish, and that’s one reason so few of them learn English.

And by the way, Mr. Garcia had the figures wrong. Over half of all the children in public schools who don’t know English are in native language programs. And for Latinos, it’s closer to 60 percent are in native language programs where they’re given a lot of Spanish or almost all Spanish during the day. And that’s why they don’t do well in school.

GARCIA: Well, I think that one of the things that we greatly differ on is that, you know, Mr. Unz assumes that bilingual programs are not to teaching English to students. And he’s absolutely wrong. The number one priority certainly in Fresno Unified School District is that we know that every single child, the number one priority has to master the English language. What we’re trying to do is get them to master the language as quickly as possible.

What Mr. Unz fails to recognize is that there are a lot of students in — He’s right about his statistics in terms of which students are here, but the reality is that most of the parents of these students happen to be illiterate themselves in their primary language. So this is a more complex issue than what he’s talking about, because we need to get — Even though he tries to address it in his proposition for adult training, we’re doing that as it goes along in part of our programs. And at the same time, you know, the options do exist for students contrary to the popular rumor that, you know, we force kids into these programs. In Fresno, students can opt out of being in a bilingual program.

BATTISTA: I’ve got to jump in here because we do have to go to a break. And I want to talk about this when we get back. Why can’t children be immersed in two languages at the same time? It’s working in Miami. So we’ll talk about that when we come back.

ANNOUNCER: Los Angeles County’s population of 9.5 million is now 41 percent Hispanic. The Hispanic and Asian populations in that county have more than doubled in the past 20 years.


BATTISTA: Welcome back. Before we have to cut away again for another break, I do want to talk to Marcella in our audience here, because you were bringing out some points that the gentlemen who had

the Internet message just a few minutes ago on the screen. It boils down to necessity versus luxury, as you were saying.

MARCELLA: Yes, I was telling that actually the level of debate is quite — It’s at two different levels. The one is talking about whether it’s easier or not to learn a language at a certain age. And the other one is talking about the necessity of learning the language. And I sincerely believe that necessity overruns all kinds of luxury of whether it’s early or late or not.

BATTISTA: Ron, what is in this for you? I mean, you’re a millionaire businessman behind this bill. You’re not an educator. I’m just curious as to what is in this initiative for you and why you think it’s…

UNZ: It’s very simple. I’ve been interested in the issue of bilingual education for many, many years. I come from a little bit of an immigrant background myself. My mother was born in Los Angeles but grew up not speaking a word of English. She learned English very quickly and easily when she was a young child and did very well. I’ve always been very skeptical of why children are kept for years in programs where they’re not taught English in the public schools instead of being taught English quickly.

Then in 1996, I read a series of articles in the “Los Angeles Times” describing how a group of immigrant Latino parents in downtown Los Angeles have to start a public boycott of their local elementary school because the school was refusing to teach the children English. And that seemed strange to me. In other words, I’d always thought of bilingual education as being a failure. But there’s a big difference between a program that’s simply a failure and a program that has gone off the deep end to the point where parents have to carry picket signs because schools refuse to allow their children to learn English.

Then I started checking the statistics in California more in detail and found out how bad they were. Again, 95 percent of the children every year in California are failing to learn English. And any program that has a 95 percent failure rate is not a program that we should keep up year after year after year.

Latino immigrants want their children to learn English. They desperately want their children to learn English. And that’s why all the statewide polls that have been conducted, ten of them in the last year, show that we have very strong support, in some cases overwhelming support, among California’s Asian and Latino immigrant population. Immigrants…

BATTISTA: OK, let me come back to that in just a minute, Ron. Miriam is a — you’re a substitute teacher in Santa Barbara, Miriam, in bilingual classes.

MIRIAM: I was a bilingual substitute teacher for about a year, and I’m from Santa Barbara. And I can verify what the gentleman from San Francisco is saying, that most of the students are born in Santa Barbara. They’re native to Santa Barbara. I taught all the classes in Spanish, math, history. Everything was in Spanish. All the textbooks were in Spanish. Everything on the walls was in Spanish.

And I taught them English probably 20 minutes a day at most. And I really think that the parents, it’s up to the parents to teach the kids English. ‘Cause you go to the store and many of the parents, the kids couldn’t buy anything. And I think that they should learn English if they’re in America. That’s the language should be their primary language.

BATTISTA: I need to get a response from Carlos Garcia out of that. And unfortunately, we do have to go to a commercial. So Carlos, hang with us and we’ll pick up with you when we come back in just a second.


ANNOUNCER: Join our TALKBACK LIVE discussion. Phone us at 800- 310-4266, fax us at 888-310-4FAX, or go on line at cnn.com/talkback.

BATTISTA: And welcome back to TALKBACK LIVE. We’re talking about the value of bilingual education and whether English should be the language of the classroom. Before I invite a couple of other guests to join us, Miriam was just telling us a few moments ago, she’s a substitute teacher in the Santa Barbara school system in bilingual classes, and that most of the kids that she had were born in Santa Barbara. By the sixth grade, they don’t know any English.

Mr. Garcia, I wanted you to answer. How does this happen? I mean, that’s clearly a system not working.

GARCIA: Well, in a lot of the cases is that we have very high migrant transit populations that move from one place to another. So they start in a program, then they move, and they go somewhere else. So, you know, that is one of the issues that we have to deal with, because the students don’t stay in the same school all the way from kindergarten through sixth grade. We have very few students that fall under that category that actually stay in the same school system.

But I would like to refer to one of the issues Mr. Unz brought up, and that is, you know, this is being touted as being one of the new things to go back to programs like this. There’s nothing new about this proposal. You know, people forget that prior to the mid- ’70s, we had immersion, full immersion education. We put students — All the Hispanics, Chicano students in Los Angeles were just put in submersion programs where they either sunk or they made it. And the reality is, you know, if you look at statistically the dropout rates then, the dropout rates were a lot higher than they are today. So, you know, I grew up here in Los Angeles. I went through that system. My primary language was Spanish. I had to learn that. I don’t want to go back to the era where when we were playing in the playground, they’d stop us if we were speaking Spanish, they’d make us put our hands out and they’d paddle our hands for speaking Spanish.

BATTISTA: Hopefully that would not happen. Let’s bring in our other couple of guests right now. Joining the conversation, Jaime Zapata, associate director of public relations at the National Association for Bilingual Education, and Alice Callaghan, director of Los Familias Del Pueblo, a community center for garment workers and their families. She led a boycott against a school that refused to teach immigrant children English. Welcome to both of you.

A few moments ago, I talked about how there is a bilingual program in Miami that seems to be working quite well. And I want to quote something from the “Los Angeles Times” that compares the two systems. And they say, “In California, bilingual education is usually seen as a program just for students of limited English skills. But in Miami, bilingual education is sold as a program for everyone.” In other words, immersing the children in two languages, not that they’re, you know, saying that they’re just deficient in one, and therefore they have to learn one over the other. Your thoughts on that to both of our new guests? Alice?

ALICE CALLAGHAN, BOYCOTT ORGANIZER: Yes. Dual immersion classes happen generally in upper middle class neighborhoods, and they’re pretty much driven by English-speaking parents who want their children to learn another language. They’re very expensive, they’re very successful, but they’re very expensive.

BATTISTA: That’s not the case in Miami, though.

CALLAGHAN: At the Coral Way School (ph)? Or are you talking about in general?

BATTISTA: Well, I’m just talking in general in Miami where the population is so heavily Hispanic that they feel it is as necessary to their population that they know Spanish as in English. In other words, they’re both economically valid and necessary.

JAIME ZAPATA, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR BILINGUAL EDUCATION: Bobbie, let me interject just one second. This two-way programs are not for just for middle class Americans. I was in a two-way program in the South Bronx of New York in an extremely poor neighborhood with everything stacked against the children in that school district. And I think my English is fairly good. My Spanish I think is just as good. And those are the kinds of opportunities that a good bilingual education program can give you.

Mr. Unz can have his opinions, but that’s all they are. I could tell you that I think that he’s thinking of running for political office and that’s why he’s talking about 227, and that’s why he’s bashing bilingual education. But you know what? What they don’t have a right to do because those opinions are incorrect, is impose them on people. And that’s what Proposition 227 does is it establishes a one- size-fits-all mandate for all children in the state of California, and it doesn’t give parents a choice, period. They can talk about so- called exemptions in the program that are absolutely impossible to meet when you look at the requirements. The fact is this is one size fits all. It takes the choice away from parents and it doesn’t let them have a say whatsoever in how their children are educated.

UNZ: If I can respond to that…

BATTISTA: Let me have Alice have her say here. Go ahead.

CALLAGHAN: Let me say, and I think this is really important for people to understand. Nobody is opposed to people being bilingual. Only a fool would be opposed to people being bilingual. Proposition

227 has nothing to do with people being bilingual. What Proposition 227 addresses is the reality in California which is Spanish language children are placed when they start school in kindergarten and in first grade in Spanish only classes. I work with impoverished garment workers. They spend all day sewing sleeves and collars on blouses. It’s not a future they want for their children. They know that unless their children learn to read and write, not simply speak but read and write English well, they have no future in this country. They may be poor but they’re not stupid.

ZAPATA: You know what? My mother is a garment worker, Alice. She’s a poor garment worker. She works very hard as well. And she knew that I needed to not only learn English but learn math, science, and all the other subjects that are part of an education. And she understood that if those subjects were taught to me in a language that I did not understand, I wasn’t going to learn.

BATTISTA: We’ve got to go to break, but as we go to the commercial, Alan, a quick experience that you had.

ALAN: I grew up in New York City and I went to the bilingual education there. And I think it’s been a great success for myself. I’ve learned English just as good, and my Chinese has stayed with me also. And I think it’s a great program.

BATTISTA: OK, we’ll be back in just a minute and continue this discussion.

ANNOUNCER: By 2010, the Hispanic origin population may become the second largest race group. By 2050, one in every three births will be Hispanic.


BATTISTA: And welcome back to TALKBACK LIVE. We just got this fax a moment ago. Mindy in Texas says, “The USA became a great nation because the immigrants who came to this country learned English. No longer did the Latins feel compelled.” I hope that’s not true.


BATTISTA: Let me first get a comment here from a gentleman who’s with the Mexican consulate here in Atlanta.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, well, I speak more of my own experience here in Atlanta. I have two years here. My wife is French. They are learning French, English, and Spanish and they’re speaking the three languages. So I think that children can learn bilingual or multilingual if necessary. The problem — I think the question to raise is what quality of bilingual education? What resources you have for bilingual education?

BATTISTA: Alice, go ahead.

CALLAGHAN: Yeah, I want to respond to that. Our parents are desperate to have their children learn English. The parents at our center, after asking their local school for over a year to teach them

English and the school refused, finally pulled their children out of school and for two weeks kept them at the center. And this is not an easy thing for recent immigrants to do. It was a very, very difficult boycott. They were by government mandate put in programs that only taught them to read and write English from kindergarten through fifth grade. And unfortunately, the perception is that those families do not want to assimilate and do not want to learn English. Our families are desperate to learn English. They live in Spanish speaking homes. The parents say they can teach the children Spanish. If the school is absolutely refusing as is the case in Los Angeles to teach the children to read and write English, then there is no way that child is going to learn it.

ZAPATA: You know, parents have a choice to pull their kids out of a program whenever they choose. These parents had a choice as well.

CALLAGHAN: Excuse me, they obviously don’t.

ZAPATA: Well, you know what? What we’re talking about here is taking anecdotal situations and turning it to your own advantage. That’s not what we’re talking about when we look at the education of children in the state of California and across this country.

BATTISTA: You know what? I don’t think anybody in this audience or anywhere else disagrees that English needs to be learned in the schools. No question about it.

ZAPATA: Nor do I, and I’m sure neither does the superintendent.

BATTISTA: And all the people that pro bilingual believe the same thing.

ZAPATA: Absolutely.

BATTISTA: I think what they don’t want is — What I’m hearing here today that sum and substance of Ron’s initiative is you’re like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

UNZ: Well, let’s look at the reality of the situation. Bilingual education has been tried in California for 30 years and it’s failed miserably. If a program…

BATTISTA: Well, then I guess that the question is being raised, then let’s fix the system that isn’t working.

CALLAGHAN: That’s what we’re doing.

UNZ: But there’s no evidence…

ZAPATA: Ron, let me ask why has bilingual education failed according to you?

UNZ: Because the theory doesn’t work in practice.

ZAPATA: Is it because according to you, it’s not teaching English? Because you know what? The kids that were pulled out of the

Ninth Street School, Alice’s school, are children, 74 of which were pulled out, only three of those kids are now being tested as proficient in English. Isn’t that the case?

UNZ: That is false. That is utterly false.

ZAPATA: No, no, that is the case.

UNZ: Excuse me, can I say something?

ZAPATA: So where’s the advantage of your program?

UNZ: Excuse me, can I say something? Let’s talk about the reality of the current system. One reason so few children learn English is the schools right now in California are paid more money so long as children do not learn English. If a child learns English, the schools…

ZAPATA: That’s not true at all.

UNZ: Excuse me. If the child learns English, the schools lose funding, and that’s the reason that they don’t teach English to the children. Or, in some cases, pretend that the children have not learned English even after they have.

Now look at all the different immigrant groups in California. There are children who enter the public schools speaking 140 different languages. But the only group of children that are given large quantities of native language, so-called bilingual instruction are Latino-Spanish speaking children.

ZAPATA: Oh, that’s absolutely false. There are bilingual programs in every language out there.

UNZ: No, there aren’t.

ZAPATA: Because they’re in the communities and the communities ask for the programs, Ron.

UNZ: Excuse me, you are wrong.

ZAPATA: No, you are lying.

UNZ: Let me finish. Let me finish.

BATTISTA: You know what, Ron, we have to take a break.


BATTISTA: I’m so sorry. And I will say this as we go into the break. I’m horrified to think that this would be a political issue when it is the welfare of the student that’s at the core of this issue.

UNZ: You’re absolutely right.

BATTISTA: We’ll talk more about that in a minute.


BATTISTA: Well, we’ve got a raging debate here in the audience. In the time that we have left, let’s just take a quick poll. Chris, start with Paula.

PAULA: Yes, hi. I’ve been bilingual since I was 5 years old, and this was in Mexico. I just moved here eight months ago. And I’m wondering, in this country where there’s so much money for research, why don’t you take a look to other countries that have successful bilingual programs and try to apply that? Because in Mexico, there’s a lot of children that in six months, one year, they’re speaking English. And they’re bilingual by 4, 5 years old. And in my house, no one spoke English. In my country, everything’s done in Spanish, and I was bilingual. So I think you should take a look.

BATTISTA: Good question, Paula. Unfortunately, I have to be rhetorical so we can get a few more opinions in here. Mary Lou?

MARY LOU: I think it’s really important that we focus on developing good bilingual programs. What the anecdote people have talked about have been about bad bilingual education in which two languages are not acquired. I think there’s evidence that from research about educational programs that there are really good ways to do bilingual education. And that’s what we need to focus on. One of the most frightening things about the Unz initiative is that it can be brought to California with a 51 percent majority. But it will take 66 percent to get rid of it. So the foreseeable future, a questionable educational policy will be mandated. Nobody will be able to choose anymore.

BATTISTA: OK, Dan from California.

DAN: Yes, I just think it’s unfair that we’re asking the majority of people in California to make a decision on something that’s going to only affect the minority.

BATTISTA: OK, and last but not least over here, Sandy and her husband, Terry.

TERRY: Well, we live in Florida, and for the time that I worked after I retired, I went to work for somebody, we would go down on Flagla (ph) and North Miami Avenue, which is the center of the city of Miami, and all we heard was Spanish. There’s hardly anybody speaking English. And the problem I see there is that the people that hire people to work all speak Spanish. And that probably goes on in the offices, also. So there’s something lost someplace.

BATTISTA: OK, we’ve got to let that be the last word. I’m so sorry. And to our guests, thanks so much for participating. And we’ll discuss this again I’m sure. Thank you for joining us. I’m Bobbie Battista. Enjoy your weekend. Miles O’Brien will be back on Monday. See you then.

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