Under Attack

Ron Unz continues attach on bilingual education in Arizona

Summer was good to Ron Unz, the California crusader against bilingual education. Not only is he happy with his state’s latest test results–which he says show his English-immersion education plan in working–but a similar proposal he’s backing in Arizona was guaranteed a place on that state’s ballot in November.

Flush with optimism, the Silicon Valley multimillionaire has ignored naysayers: Unz’s stats, his opponents charged, were selective and soft, just as they had been in 1998 when his proposal was approved by the voters. But lack of agreement about statistics didn’t stop approval of Proposition 227 by California voters grappling with a soft economy, a tide of immigrants and a call to hold teachers accountable for students’ poor academic performance. Unz’s law replaced the state’s bilingual education program with a one-year English immersion program, except for those students whose parents request a waiver.

For his new drive in Arizona, Unz has artillery he didn’t have in California–new, favorable test results and an organized, Hispanic-led group to campaign for his cause. “It’s unwise to take an approach where you don’t have strong and credible local support,” say Unz, a software entrepreneur. If Proposition 203 succeeds in Arizona, Unz expects to march east with similar plans, to states such as Massachusetts and New York with especially vocal debates over the merits of bilingual education. “I don’t see any other way for change,” says Unz, who lost a gubernatorial bid in 1994 and considered running for Dianne Geinstein’s Senate seat this year. “I don’t think politicians are going to do anything about it. Politicians are extraordinarily cowardly.”

But bringing the debate to the polls–politicizing it–carries dark overtones, according to Delia Pompa, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education “[Bilingual education] has become an easy scapegoat for people nervous about immigration, people who have xenophobic tendencies.” she says.

“It’ll be important to look toward Arizona to see what precedent is set there,” says Roberto Rodriguez, education reform coordinator for the National Council of La Raza. “We’re concerned with these initiatives that we feel are not related to the best interests of the education of children, but have more to do with external issues.”

The Arizona law would replace bilingual education with one year of English immersion, unless parents could prove a child’s social and psychological need for dual-language classes. Some Arizonans particularly fear a provision in the law that would give schools the power to refuse, without explanation, a parent’s request for bilingual classes. “It’s taking away the power of parents to choose,” says Alejandra Sotomayor, southern Arizona co-chairman of the Arizona Language Education Council, formed in response to the initiative drive.

Modern bilingual education traces its roots to South Florida. Cuban refugees arriving in 1960, awaiting what they foresaw as Fidel Castro’s quick fall and their return to the island, pushed Dade County school officials to teach their children not only in English, but also in their native Spanish. With dual-language instruction, the students began outscoring English-speaking children elsewhere in Florida.

Seeing their success, a Texas senator in 1967 called for federal aid to school Spanish-speaking Mexican American children in English and Spanish. The idea was that the students could keep up with their studies while acquiring English skills.

The push was fueled by a study conducted by educators in Tucson. Titled “The Invisible Minority,” their controversial report said that English-only classes hurt Mexican American children’s self-esteem. “The harm done the Mexican American child linguistically is paralleled … by the harm done to him as a person,” the report said.

Under the state’s old one-year immersion program, which ran from 1917 to 1967, six out of ten Hispanic students dropped out; the rate was higher for Native Americans. So was born the Bilingual Education Act of 1968. That law provides federal funding to encourage local schools to try bilingual education.

Neither it nor subsequent court rulings require a particular teaching method, and they don’t mandate bilingual education. Civil rights laws, however, require that educational programs offer equal opportunities for English-speaking and limited-English-proficient children.

With the introduction of the new bilingual education program, Tucson’s Hispanic bilingual-education students did better. The annual dropout rate in recent years has been only 6 percent, compared with 17 percent for Hispanic students statewide, including those not in bilingual education. But the results of bilingual education programs elsewhere have been mixed.

Three-quarters of the nation’s three million bilingual education students speak Spanish. Educators have defined no single best method for teaching English to non-native speakers, and studies looking into the issue conflict. Some studies say children can learn enough English in a year to get along in mainstream classes; others say it takes four to seven years for children to become as able as native English speakers to grasp complex academic concepts in their new language.

Many states employ bilingual education methods. Schools in Georgia have created a teacher-exchange program to cope with a rapid influx of Spanish-speaking students; Maine schools use a program for French-speaking children; and Michigan has devised ways to connect culturally with Chaldean-speaking children.

Supporters of anti-bilingual education methods say one-year English-immersion programs speed up students’ assimilation into the American mainstream. It also saves taxpayers money by not dragging out the teaching process, they say.

In Arizona, the bilingual education budget of $162 per student, or 0.1 percent of the total school budget, caused U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez earlier this year to order the state to increase the budget to comply with equal opportunity laws. Five to seven percent of the state’s limited-English students are enrolled in bilingual education.

The long cycle of bilingual education holds children back, immersion backers say, sometimes graduating in English. “All your opportunities will be based on your ability to speak English,” says Linda Chavez, president of One Nation Indivisible, a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization coordinating the Colorado anti-bilingual-education campaign.

To move students through the process more quickly, Connecticut recently placed a 30-month cap on bilingual education, requiring annual assessments of students’ progress.

Opponents of immersion counter that by focusing on learning English during that year, children fall behind their classmates in academic studies.

In March, Education Secretary Richard Riley proposed creating 1,000 dual-language schools in the next five years to begin keeping up with the continuing increases in the nation’s Latino population; there are already 260 such schools. In June, President Clinton proposed goals for improving Hispanic students’ high-school completion rate–only 63 percent nationwide, compared with 88 percent for non-Hispanic whites and blacks. Among the proposals: making sure all graduating seniors are proficient in English.

“The demographics alone point to the need for more bilingual education, not less,” says Jaime Zapata, public affairs director for National Council of La Raza. “Unless a large group of children are expected to fail, there will have to be more.”

In California, the switch to English immersion has been bumpy. State education evaluators in March reported that some bilingual classes in Oakland still were conducted entirely in Spanish and Chinese. On the opposite side of the scale, in May, state officials sided with parents in Pittsburg, east of San Francisco, who said the schools abandoned Hispanic English learners when Proposition 227 became law in 1998. They ordered the schools to assess students’ needs and get enough instructional materials for them. In July, when California released improving statewide assessment-test scores, Unz claimed a victory for his law, spotlighting one particular school’s success. At San Juan Elementary School, mostly poor, Hispanic students posted double-digit improvements in some grades and in some subjects. The reason, Unz suggested, was because the San Juan Capistrano school switched quickly to English immersion when the law took effect.

However, opponents note that San Juan had scored so low the previous year that the school district supplied the entire school with extra books, teacher training and other resources to help raise performance. And the increases put it on a par with nearby schools having high bilingual enrollment.

The arguments don’t faze Unz as he looks beyond Arizona to new targets–including New York. “One reason I didn’t go with a New York effort [initially] was I didn’t have a strong group there yet to get involved with it,” he says. But he hopes to capitalize on the momentum his effort would get from a second victory in Arizona. New Yorkers overwhelmingly want a one-year English-immersion program, he says, pointing to one poll.

Other potential converts to his cause? “I’ll be going to a bunch of other states, probably. Massachusetts might be a very logical place to go.” In Massachusetts, state Sen. Guy Glodis, a Democrat, has proposed shelving bilingual programs in favor of a one-year English-immersion approach. Colorado organizers, led by former Denver resident Chavez, plan to build a strong grass-roots movement supporting their plan. Their measure failed to stay on the ballot this year, she says, because they didn’t allow enough time to tangle with Colorado’s complex initiative-review process. The group will monitor Denver schools (which are under a court order to institute a three-year bilingual-education program) and will seek private funding for adult English classes to go along with their expected 2002 initiative.

For now, all eyes are on Arizona.

“I have to believe the people who started the anti-bilingual-education initiative really care about children,” says Lorraine Lee, vice president of Chicanos Por La Causa/Tucson, a longtime social service organization that’s opposed to Proposition 203.

“In the end, we’re all looking at what is going to help our children compete in a global economy.”

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