When California voters approved an anti-bilingual education referendum last year, Mercedes de la Riva, a Mexican immigrant with school-age children, was scared about the future. “My two young daughters, Alejandra and Mercedes, who are now in second and fourth grade, had always been in bilingual education programs,” said de la Riva in Spanish. “I was very worried about what would happen to them.”
The passage of Proposition 227 turned de la Riva into an activist. She joined a parents’ committee and closely watched how her district in Carlsbad would implement the referendum. Confirming her worst fears, both children were placed in English-language immersion programs. But de la Riva stayed involved. At home, she worked with her daughters to help them learn English, even though she is still learning English herself. And she met with the girls’ teachers to keep a close eye on their progress.
As the school year came to a close last June, de la Riva found her fears had subsided, and her feelings about bilingual education had changed. She is not pushing for a return to bilingual education for her daughters. “No matter what happens at school, I will teach my daughters Spanish at home,” she said. “They don’t need the school for that.”
De la Riva’s newfound opinions reflect a sea change that has occurred in California in the battle over bilingual education. A year after passage of Prop. 227, it is clear that bilingual education in California — and possibly the nation — will never be the same. The number of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) children enrolled in bilingual education programs in California has plummeted. And while supporters of bilingual education are fighting in court to overturn the referendum, they also concede there is simply no turning back the clock. “I’ve tried to look at this as an opportunity to improve our services,” said Santa Ana Unified School District Superintendent Al Mijares. “I don’t think bilingual education is going to disappear completely. But it’s definitely never going back to the way it was.”
For districts like Santa Ana, which has a 90 percent Hispanic enrollment, this past school year has been chaotic. In California’s public schools, some 1.4 million children are classified as LEP students, most of them native Spanish speakers. Prior to Prop. 227, only about one-third of those students were in bilingual education programs. But Ron Unz, the California millionaire who bankrolled Prop. 227, and his supporters argued that even 30 percent was too many children. Backers of the referendum claimed that young children have a tremendous capacity to learn a new language and that bilingual education wasn’t serving their best interests or producing good results. Voters agreed. Proposition 227 was overwhelmingly approved in June 1998 and had to be implemented just a few months later in time for the 1998-99 school year.
The complex — and in some ways vague — law called for LEP children to complete one year of ‘sheltered English immersion’ and then go into mainstream classes. Parents could seek a waiver to get their child placed in bilingual education instead of English immersion. But the waiver process was arduous. Parents were required to personally visit the school to seek the waiver. And even then, schools could deny a waiver or approve a waiver but refuse to set up a bilingual education program. In the latter case, parents were told that their child would need to go to another school for bilingual education, not a very popular option.
Looking back on the first year under the new law’s requirements, bilingual education advocates are saying its implementation in many districts was a disgrace. They say that in many schools, it has been a return to the old days of sink or swim, but in today’s Information Age, that just isn’t good enough.
“Our kids are entering the 21st Century, and the sweat of their brow is not going to get them much success,” said Elena Soto-Chapa, Statewide Education Director for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). “It doesn’t matter how entrepreneurial you are or how hard you work, if you don’t have an education. You cannot sacrifice academics to learning English. And our kids shouldn’t be asked to do that.” In addition, bilingual education supporters worry that parents of LEP children were not adequately informed of their rights. And they are concerned about the proposition’s lack of any formal method to monitor the success of the new immersion programs.
“It is always a disaster any time that educational policies are made without putting children first,” said Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE). “The way Prop. 227 is being implemented is different from district to district and from school to school within the same district. And, of course, there is no clear mechanism to determine academic progress or language development.”
Those who supported the proposition aren’t happy with the results either. Unz claims that many districts are “dragging their feet” in implementing the law and that other districts are continuing to offer bilingual education under the guise of an immersion program. And they argue that districts are steering children back into bilingual education programs by coercing parents into seeking waivers.
Both sides have a point in that the implementation of Prop. 227 has been scattershot, with districts left to decide on their own how to enact the law’s complicated provisions. In general, districts with strong bilingual education programs that enjoyed lots of parental support received requests for waivers, which were easily granted. The San Francisco Unified School District, for example, actually saw its bilingual education program grow after Prop. 227. About one-third of the district’s 65,000 children are classified as LEP. The district, which has been under a federal court order to meet the needs of LEP students, asked parents to sign an authorization form saying they wanted their child to stay in bilingual education. In a nod to 227, the district renamed its programs English Only and English Plus.
At the same time, the district with the largest LEP population, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), found itself scrambling to implement a program in the two months after the referendum passed. The vote took place on June 2, and LAUSD’s next semester started on Aug. 3. “We worked weekends and nights to get ready for this,” said district spokeswoman Socorro Serrano. “We set out to train our staff in how it would work, and then reached out to the parents in every school to explain their rights and how we would implement the new law.”
In holding to the referendum’s parameters, for the first 30 days of the new school year, all LEP students in LAUSD were placed in an English-only immersion program. The district then offered two options. Students who had been in bilingual education before were placed in an English-immersion program led by teachers who spoke no Spanish. A teaching assistant was on hand to get students through rough spots, but the focus was on English. Bilingual education teachers, who could revert to Spanish as needed, taught the second immersion track. This program was for students who had little or no understanding of English.
Many assumed that Hispanic parents would fight to keep their children in bilingual education. But at LAUSD, a groundswell of waivers never materialized. Only 11 percent of parents with LEP children sought waivers to get their youngsters back in bilingual education. The vast majority — 89 percent — went along with the new system. In just one year, the district’s massive bilingual education program, which included more than 100,000 children, shrank to about 11,000.
To the surprise of many bilingual education supporters, a similar scenario played out in the Santa Ana Unified School District, where 76 percent of children are LEP students. School officials, backed by the local board of education, undertook a huge educational campaign aimed at parents. “We wanted each and every parent to understand their rights and to understand they could opt out of this immersion program,” said Superintendent Mijares.
Again, parents didn’t respond as expected. Despite such diligent outreach efforts, the district also saw its bilingual program greatly reduced in size. In the 1997-98 school year, 38,381 Santa Ana students were in a bilingual education program. This past school year, only 5,800 children were enrolled in bilingual education through the waiver process.
Santa Ana Superintendent Mijares was surprised by the small number of parents who sought to keep their children in bilingual education. But he understood as well. “The rhetoric about this proposition was so strong that many parents became convinced bilingual education was bad for their child,” said Mijares. “Then, because we were scaling back and collapsing programs, parents were faced with having to send their child to an unfamiliar school or classroom for bilingual ed. Many just didn’t want to do that.”
Other districts took a much stricter interpretation of the law. In San Diego County, the Oceanside Unified School District completely eliminated its bilingual education program. The prior year, the district had roughly 3,000 children in a bilingual education or transitional program in some 120 classrooms. District Superintendent Ken Noonan, who is of Hispanic descent and a former bilingual education teacher himself, decided that the safest and most appropriate course of action was to implement the law literally.
Of the thousands of eligible LEP children in Oceanside, only about 120 applied for waivers, and of those, just a handful were granted by the district. For Noonan, it was a troubling situation. “I was against Proposition 227 and really concerned about its effects,” said Noonan. “But once it passed, I saw no other choice.”
At the end of the school year, however, Noonan’s trepidation turned to elation when standardized test scores for LEP students came in. The LEP students had scored better in every category at every grade level tested on the Stanford Achievement Test Ninth Edition, known popularly as SAT 9.
The test gains were simply off the charts. Scores in nearly all subject areas and grade levels doubled and even tripled in percentile terms. The top result was an incredible jump of 475 percent for seventh graders in reading. “These results are absolutely phenomenal,” said Noonan. “It tells us that these children are prepared and ready to learn English much more quickly than we thought they could. And it says a lot about our teachers. These were people who had devoted their entire professional preparation and careers to this method of teaching. But they took this new policy and made it work.”
As more test scores are reported and districts review their results, the debate over Prop. 227 will continue. But there is no question that in California, the context of the bilingual debate has dramatically shifted. Many point to fast-growing dual-immersion programs as the future. In these programs, Latino youngsters learn English alongside children who are eager to learn Spanish. “The only good thing about all this is that now LEP children are getting lots of attention,” said MALDEF’s Soto-Chapa. “Whether we use English immersion or bilingual education as a teaching method shouldn’t be the debate. What we really need to focus on is the achievement gap between Limited English Proficiency students and other children.”