A Chicago Cure For California

In California, where ballot initiatives have become an independent branch of the government, voters will decide Tuesday whether to kill and bury traditional bilingual education programs throughout the state.

Like most previous initiatives, this one germinated around a valid concern: After nearly 30 years of trying, bilingual education has not proven its worth. Just about everyone is fed up with it, most notably the overwhelming majority of Latino parents.

Yet the sledgehammer California fix–to offer no more than one year of intensive English to all non-native kids, period–is draconian. It would accomplish little except to vent mounting public frustration.

Indeed, the approach adopted earlier this year by the Chicago Public Schools is far more productive. It abandons the formerly open-ended transitional bilingual education system in favor of a maximum of three years of intensive English, from which kids emerge as soon as tests indicate their readiness. At the same time, the Chicago program has enough flexibility to accommodate the individuality of students and schools.

California undoubtedly is the prime locale for the debate over bilingual education: Last year exactly one-fourth of its 5.6 million public school students did not know enough English to keep up academically.

The California bilingual curriculums–nourished with hundreds of millions in state and federal funds–try to teach non-native kids regular subjects in their own language and gradually blend them in with the rest of the school population. Variations of this theme are used throughout the nation.

But three decades after it was first mandated by the federal government, nothing’s clear about bilingual education except that has become an article of faith in some Latino political circles and a self-sustaining industry within the public educatocracy.

Meanwhile, the staggeringly high Hispanic dropout rate nationwide–highest among all ethnic groups–has worsened. It’s no wonder that in California the loudest clamor for change is coming from Hispanic parents.

But Proposition 227 is flawed in the same way as previous cookie-cutter federal and state bilingual education programs. Just as kids differ in age, socioeconomic backgrounds and intelligence–and the ease with which they can evolve from their native languages to English–so must remedial language programs allow for variations in learning times and achievement levels by individuals and within school districts.

Ultimately, the best place to design effective programs to help non-English speaking kids is at the district or even the individual school level, enlisting the help of motivated parents and teachers.

Voter initiatives, particularly when they are used as promiscuously as they are in California, can be dangerous weapons. They can galvanize public attention on significant problems but just as easily can grind those problems down to sound-bite simplicity and–as in the case of Proposition 227–generate highly suspect solutions.

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