‘Seven people will not decide the future of our kids,” Maria Quiroz, a parent of children at Jordan Elementary school in Orange, told the Register’s Ana Menendez on Thursday. Ms. Quiroz was responding to the decision by the Orange Unified SchoolDistrict’s seven trustees to seek state permission to dismantle the district’s bilingual education program.
It might be said with equal force, however, that the 200 people who showed up at the Board meeting to protest the vote shouldn’t have the last word on instructional policies for the entire district. Not all of these people were parents, and not all were from Orange. It is an open question how representative they are, on this subject, of the broader Spanish-speaking population in the city. (In all, the district’s schools have approximately 4,200 Spanish-speaking children).
Thankfully, a better mechanism is available for gauging parental sentiment for bilingual schooling _ and for putting that instructional system to a test of effectiveness.
The mechanism is the charter-school concept, which allows significant autonomy and parental involvement in school policies.
As it happens, Jordan Elementary, which has a large majority of Latino students, is applying for charter status. Principal Kit Dameron told us on Friday that there is no predetermined plan to make it a “bilingual-ed” charter school. But the 13-member governing board that would devise policy (a board including parents and teachers) would have the flexibility to go that route.
If they did, families could then vote with their feet, and we could get a better sense of whether Spanish-speaking families in any numbers have confidence in the bilingual approach. Parents within Jordan’s geographic boundaries would be free to send their children to other schools. And parents from elsewhere in the district who wanted a bilingual program for their children could enroll them at Jordan, assuming available space at the school.
The result could be a useful comparison of student performance, between a bilingual-ed school, and other elementary schools with large numbers of Latinos but more classroom emphasis on English from the earliest grades.
To be sure, considerable data already points to problems with the bilingual approach. “The research evidence suggests that all-English instruction holds the least risk and usually has the greatest benefit for limited-English-proficient children,” Professor Christine Rossell of Boston University has written.
The statewide record of bilingualinstruction in California does not inspire optimism. The percentage of limited English students who had learned enough English to be redesignated as English proficient fell to 5.7 percent in 1995, from 13.3 percent in 1982, according to figures from the California Department of Education.
“I am skeptical about bilingual education _ I think in the long run kids will be a lot better served the quicker they learn English fluently,” Orange Trustee Bill Lewis told us on Friday. “But parental choice is an important value. Having a charter school that offers bilingual schooling would give parents who favor it an option _ and we would see how many parents really do favor it. We’d also be able to see two teaching approaches side-by-side and get some criteria for comparing and judging results. “
The trustees could vote on Jordan’s application for charter status as early as May 8. Whether bilingualism would be part of the instructional mix would be a decision for the school’s charter board to make on its own, later on.
The district would be wrong to try to foreclose such an option for the school. Pluralism and family choice are worthy policy goals in themselves, but they are doubly beneficial as a means of developing consensus on what teaching tools work best.