After months of deliberation, Mayor Richard Riordan on Thursday endorsed the campaign to end California’s system of bilingual education, which he described as a well-intended experiment overtaken by special interests and now badly failing the state’s children.
“I know of a few laboratory examples of bilingual education succeeding,” the mayor told members of the Westchester Chamber of Commerce. “But in the vast, vast majority of schools it is a total failure.”
The mayor, who has no authority over schools but who regularly expounds on educational programs and initiatives, urged the Los Angeles Unified School District to take the money now being spent on bilingual education classes and instead devote it to after-school and weekend English-language instruction.
Riordan added that he would “use every effort” to see that money was shifted to those “total immersion” programs so that non-English-speaking students would receive extra help adjusting to classes in English.
Riordan’s endorsement of Proposition 227–known as the Unz initiative for its chief backer, Silicon Valley executive Ron Unz–lends powerful backing to the anti-bilingual campaign. Riordan is a moderate Republican who ran well among Latinos in his reelection campaign last year, and more than 300,000 Los Angeles students are enrolled in bilingual education. Neither Gov. Pete Wilson nor Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the prospective GOP gubernatorial nominee, has taken a position on the measure; all the Democratic candidates for governor oppose it.
Reaction to the mayor’s speech came quickly and was sharply divided. Skid row activist Alice Callaghan, who helped spark Proposition 227 with a 1996 boycott protesting bilingual instruction at Los Angeles’ Ninth Street School, commended the mayor.
“I know he has spent a very long time thinking about [the initiative] and talking to people on both sides of the issue,” said Callaghan, who has regularly sent Riordan material on the matter and lobbied him despite their differences on a number of issues. “The mayor’s support has always been important to us. . . . He is the first politician to be willing to stand side by side with our sweatshop workers–the only one.”
‘We Have Failed Our Children’
By contrast, Rafael Gonzalez, director of civic education for the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, was stunned.
“Oh my God, he did it!” Gonzalez exclaimed. “I really think it’s a sad day when the mayor of one of the most diverse cities in the nation throws his support to an untested program that only seems to fan the air of divisiveness.”
Said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center: “I thought it was an unfortunate statement, because I don’t think his understanding is complete on the effect of the proposition.”
As with many of his educational forays, Riordan framed his endorsement of Proposition 227 in both economic and moral terms. He described English as the “language of business, of jobs,” and said children who do not speak it fluently will be at an economic disadvantage in an increasingly competitive society.
At the same time, he stressed that letting down children was a social failing that offended his conscience, which ultimately prompted him to publicly back the initiative and stump for it.
“We have failed our children,” he said. “We can do it no longer.” Riordan’s decision to endorse the initiative was reached after months of consideration. In February, he was on the verge of announcing a position, but was persuaded by aides to spend more time considering it. After conferring with aides and others, Riordan said he decided two weeks ago that he was unalterably opposed to bilingual education and that he felt obligated to speak out on the issue.
Even as he did, the mayor tried to stress his commitment to cultural and linguistic diversity. Riordan emphasized that language is an important aspect of cultural heritage, and said his support for the initiative was not intended to minimize that.
“But bilingual education is not about customs or traditions,” he said. “It is about an experiment that has failed our children. . . . It is time to start giving our children the tools to compete, for today and tomorrow.”
Although Riordan spoke with force and was interrupted several times by applause from an audience made up mostly of business executives, he refrained from disparaging the other side in the emotional, sometimes divisive debate.
“Reasonable people can disagree on this issue,” Riordan said. “I’m not one to demonize people who disagree with me.”
Riordan reiterated that sentiment later in the day, when asked whether he was worried that his support for the initiative would be construed as racist–a charge leveled at some of the proposition’s backers. Riordan brusquely responded that he thought it was wrong for either side to demonize the other on such a charged and complicated topic.
Riordan’s growing determination to play a role in the educational life of Los Angeles and California has created some friction with the local school board, whose members the mayor has criticized. That board unanimously voted to oppose the Unz initiative, but Riordan resisted taking a swipe at the school board members Thursday. Still, district officials were sensitive to the mayor’s announcement–even if some chose not to rise to the bait.
Reaction in L.A. Unified
A spokesman for Los Angeles Unified Supt. Ruben Zacarias, who learned of the mayor’s endorsement Thursday morning, said he would refrain from taking a position on the Unz initiative because he is not an elected official.
A firm supporter of bilingual education, Zacarias has frequently said that its practice in Los Angeles schools needs to be improved by speeding up students’ transition into English, which should generally occur by the third grade.
But spokesman Brad Sales took issue with the mayor’s conclusion that bilingual education has failed.
“There are many fine bilingual programs in the district producing students going on to prestigious colleges and universities,” he said.
School board member David Tokofsky saw the mayor’s endorsement as “a bold move” that could not be attacked as an English-only stand.
“There’s no question in my mind that the mayor loves children, and this is not an easy decision for him,” Tokofsky said. “It pains him no end that children are not being given the chance his own children would have.”
Despite being part of a unanimous school board vote opposing Unz, Tokofsky said he is troubled that the district’s instructional staff has not produced empirical evidence that bilingual education works.
If the Unz initiative becomes law, he said, “Zacarias and the staff better have more than emotional responses to present to justify continuation of programs.”
In the trenches, Riordan’s stand brought sharply divided reactions following the lines of a November teachers union referendum that split 52% to 48% against the Unz initiative. “Good,” said Debby Eckstein, a non-bilingual teacher at Graham Elementary school in South-Central Los Angeles, who fears she may be bumped into a summer teaching track by a less-experienced bilingual teacher. She said she would have to quit to be with her two children.
“If this passes, that’s the only thing that is going to save my job,” Eckstein said. Other teachers and administrators criticized the mayor for acting without sufficient knowledge of bilingual education.
“Personally I am shocked, very disappointed, because Mr. Riordan’s endorsement is based on misinformation,” said Javier Miranda, principal of Florence Avenue School in South-Central and a longtime bilingual advocate.
“The assumption is that children in bilingual programs do not acquire English,” Miranda said. “Yes, their English language development will be delayed, not because of the program itself, but because of the overall environment in which they live.”
Although Riordan’s endorsement highlighted the day’s events surrounding Proposition 227, the initiative also picked up support from a group of Asian American elected officials in Orange County. Among those present were Garden Grove Councilman Ho Chung, Westminster Councilman Tony Lam and Fullerton Councilwoman Julie Sa.
“The education issue cannot be distorted by ethnic sensibilities or political opportunism,” said Chung, who organized the news conference. “Children are our future. We have to educate them. We have to have one common language for everybody to be able to communicate.”
Chung, a Korean immigrant who arrived in the United States 30 years ago with his four children, said his own children’s experience in this country’s education system convinced him that educating students in English as early as possible is key to their success. Times staff writers Bettina Boxall and Tini Tran contributed to this article.