Los Angeles—Be ready for it. In the upcoming battle over the merits and disadvantages of Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative, the most cited statistic may be that nearly three-fourths of Hispanic parents support it.
Let me repeat that, 75 percent of people with children most likely to be aided by the program, plan to support it on this year’s ballot. Doubtless, this will lead to snide remarks by Republicans, Libertarians, conservatives and the like, that the Democratic party is taking a position which forces minority groups into programs that they don’t like. They will say that, like Southern Democrats in the 1960s, with their “separate but equal” consideration, today’s Democratic leaders are telling parents how their children are best taught.
Proposition 227 supporters need to be careful about this analogy; there are ways that it does not apply at all. Most significantly, California’s Democratic leaders who oppose the measure are obviously not the racists that the Southerners were. While the Southerners’ motivation was to keep African Americans out of the good schools that white children were privileged to attend, most opponents of Proposition 227 are interested in giving Hispanic children a fair shake despite their linguistic disadvantage in the education system. Opponents of the measure are taking a moral high ground and the prudent position in trying to ensure that every child has the ability to achieve all that they can.
There is, however, a significant way in which the two situations are similar, and I suspect it is the primary cause of the Hispanic support for the measure. In both cases, children are separated out of the mainstream to be given a different education. Children were, de jure, allowed to be treated differently, with the goal of getting all children to the same end point with, ostensibly, the same opportunity. As all of us know, this never was the case under “separate but equal” schooling, and I suggest that it is not often the case under current bilingual programs.
Hispanic parents don’t want their children in these programs for the same reason that the parents of mildly retarded children don’t want their children in special programs. When one pegs a child as needing extra help and removes them from the mainstream, they make it very hard for the child to get back to the normal level. People want their children to have a fair shake, and they don’t see this happening in the bilingual special programs.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. In the perfect world, enough resources should be poured into bilingual special programs that they will, in actuality, give Hispanic children an equal chance with the English speaking children. In the perfect world, there should be bilingual education to make up for the disadvantages that are completely beyond the child’s control. Unfortunately, this world is far from perfect, and separate is inherently unequal. Bilingual education is going to help some children and disadvantage others. It now becomes a matter of pragmatics as to which technique will work better. It is clear that history and educators are on different sides of this debate. American history tells of immigrants coming to the melting pot and their children finding a way to assimilate by submersion in English. A majority of teachers, who work with the children on a daily basis, believe the children are better taught their way, with bilingual programs. Parents think their children are best taught by submersion. I think it may be different for different children.
Before I close I would like to put one last wrinkle in the debate. It should be noted that Proposition 227 allows for some children to use a limited bilingual program with parental permission and some requirements. These requirements are obviously designed to make it so that not all Hispanic parents are able to put their children in the program. However, given that 75 percent of them don’t like it anyway, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.