Vote Doesn't End Bilingual Debate

California suit moves battle into courtroom

LOS ANGELES—At Cahuenga Elementary School, Helen Yu’s 5th graders sing “You’re a Grand Old Flag” in English and “Arirang,” a traditional folk song, in Korean. And 1st-grade teacher Carlos Artiga answers questions from his pupils in Spanish, their native language, while Lidia Roman, the Spanish-speaking grandmother of a kindergarten pupil, helps every day as a volunteer aide.


Just how long any of this will continue is as much of an open question as the future of bilingual education across the nation.


California’s overwhelming passage of Proposition 227, ending bilingual
education in the nation’s most diverse and politically influential state, has mobilized supporters and opponents of the measure for a battle that could be repeated in other states.


Encouraged by Tuesday’s victory, Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who launched the initiative, said he expects similar legislation against bilingual
education to be introduced in Congress and in other states.


“I think this vote may mark the beginning of the end of bilingual education
in the United States,” Unz said.


But just hours after unofficial counts showed that nearly two-thirds of California’s voters had endorsed the measure, opponents filed a legal challenge before U.S. District Judge Charles Legge in San Francisco.


Officials at the National Association of Bilingual Education, a Washington-based organization that promotes bilingual instruction, also said that despite California’s history as a trend-setter, they believe Proposition 227 will prove to be a “California-specific event.”


Other states with large immigrant populations–Texas, Florida and New York–have “embraced multilingualism,” the officials said.


In Chicago, Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of public schools, called the California vote “far too extreme.”


“We’ve cut back on our program, too, but what we’ve done is restructured the program so that it is the program that we’ve intended it to be,” Vallas said. “I think what we’ve done in Chicago is going to prove to be far more effective than what they’ve done in California by referendum.”


The California initiative requires that all public school instruction be conducted in English and allows students to take “sheltered English immersion” classes for no more than one year.


The Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees voted this year to limit to three years the amount of time students can spend in bilingual education. Unlike the California immersion plan, the Chicago policy is for “transitional” bilingual
education, meaning that students would begin the program primarily in their native language and then begin taking classes where some and, eventually all, of the instruction is in English.


Vallas said the Chicago decision was based on studies that have shown bilingual education is most effective if it involves a transition from the native language to the new one.


The bilingual-education proposal won widespread voter support despite the opposition of President Clinton, all four major candidates for governor, the chairmen of the state’s Republican and Democratic Parties, and editorials in California’s major newspapers.


“This (vote) says that the people of California very strongly believe that children should be taught English when they go to school as quickly as possible and that bilingual education is a dismal failure,” Unz said.


Opponents of the measure argued in their legal challenge that the initiative violates the Constitution and other federal laws that guarantee the right of all students to receive equal educational opportunities.


The opponents, a coalition of education and civil rights groups, asked for an injunction to keep the law from being implemented. Otherwise, under the language of the initiative, it would take effect in 60 days.


Some teachers suggested there would be defiance of the measure. “You may be looking at some very serious situations of civil disobedience,” said Luisa Ezquerro, a bilingual-education teacher at McAteer High School in San Francisco. “I’m always going to find a way to give my students what they need, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that. That’s how teachers function.”


Other teachers expressed fear that they might be sued for answering students’ questions in their native languages. At Cahuenga, one teacher told Principal Lloyd Houske that he was thinking of going to work with older pupils who have a better understanding of English.


It is not clear what would happen to bilingual as a result of the initiative. Almost 1.4 million students statewide have limited English proficiency, a number that represents about a quarter of all the students enrolled in California’s public schools.


The number of students in bilingual-education programs represents nearly half of students in all such programs nationwide.


Under certain conditions, parents can request a waiver from the new law’s language requirements. Many other aspects of the initiative remain open to interpretations that will have to be determined if the law is to begin.


The prevailing feeling in California is that students languish in bilingual-education programs that do not teach them English. Moreover, the state’s education bureaucracy has created incentives to keep students in such classes rather than moving them into mainstream English classes.


The incident that was said to serve as Unz’s inspiration for the initiative was a 1996 protest at the Ninth Street School in Los Angeles that led Spanish-speaking parents to transfer their children from bilingual programs to English-only classrooms.


But parents at Cahuenga have a markedly different attitude toward the school’s bilingual programs. Last year, they lined up at 1 a.m. to assure their children a place in the fall’s kindergarten classes.


The school’s four variations of bilingual instruction, each some combination of Spanish and English or Korean and English, are considered big successes. Though most children come from homes in which their parents speak no English, the school’s pupils read English at levels that exceed the average of their peers in the city, state and nation.


“I have children who speak fluent Spanish, Korean and English,” Houske said with obvious pride. “Do you realize the job opportunities they’ll have when they graduate?”


Strolling around the school, Houske said that if the proposition is implemented, “This, all this, would be in English.” It would be a sharp contrast to the neighborhood surrounding the school, in which signs are as likely to be in Korean or Spanish as in English.


Fifth grader Jerica Santiago said she likes the mix of languages. At home, her parents speak to her in the language of their native Philippines, she said. At school, she learns in Korean and English.


Asked what English-only classes would be like, she shouted: “Boring!”


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