Hours after the decisive victory of Proposition 227 at the polls, civil rights organizations went to court to block its implementation, while teachers and administrators in some urban school districts angrily threatened to defy its terms even if it is upheld.
The emotional reactions were to be expected from those who are on the front lines of the bilingual debate — those who teach a third of California’s 1.4 million English-language learners in the students’ primary language. Teachers in districts with large numbers of “limited English proficient” students have good reason to fear the effects on those children of the initiative’s one-size-fits-all mandate for English-only instruction.
Children, like adults, differ in their capacity for learning foreign languages. Some have a natural affinity for it and will be fluent with a year’s immersion. Others, who may be quick students in other subjects, will undoubtedly struggle for several years before they actually begin to think and learn in English.
It is the academic futures of these children that Proposition 227’s opponents so vigorously claim to protect when they threaten the “civil disobedience” of ignoring last week’s election results.
But opponents would do a much greater service if, instead, they helped devise and then strongly supported measures for ensuring these children aren’t left behind academically once the initiative takes effect.
A court ruling against Proposition 227 seems unlikely. It is possible, however, for the Legislature to pass a bill requiring that all students in the “sheltered English immersion” classes required by the initiative are assessed after one year, and given extra help if they need it to succeed. Those children who are fluent enough to take accurate notes and grasp new academic concepts after a year of English immersion should join the mainstream of English-language classes. Those who are still struggling must be offered more time in the “sheltered” English classes, or extra services after school or in summer school. Otherwise, they face certain failure under a new system that has no requirements for showing it works better than the old one.
The bilingual education backlash occurred in the first place partly because nothing held the program accountable for results. Bilingual programs ranged from highly effective, where students succeeded in mastery both of English and other academic courses, to gross failure, where kids languished in Spanish-only classes year after year.
Proposition 227 threw out the good with the bad, with no assurances either would be replaced with something that works. Now it is time for the Legislature to create those assurances so that the “English for the Children” initiative doesn’t leave California’s children behind.