Four years after Californians voted to all but scrap “bilingual education,” the results are remarkable. The share of Hispanic students scoring above the median in math tests is now 46%, up from 27%. The number scoring above the median in reading is now 35%, up from 21%. You’d think this evidence would cause other states to oppose this form of ethnic separatism, but too many politicians are dodging the issue.
This year’s battlegrounds on bilingual education — a euphemism for Spanish-only instruction in most places — are Massachusetts and Colorado. Both will vote next month on initiatives that would move students into English-immersion programs unless their parents request a waiver. In the liberal Bay State, the moderate GOP candidate for governor, Mitt Romney, supports English immersion. But ironically in Colorado, conservative GOP Governor Bill Owens has sided with an education lobby that wants to prop up this failed teaching tool.
In Massachusetts, the reform effort is being led by Lincoln Tamayo, a Cuban immigrant and former inner- city school principal. Mr. Romney is highlighting the issue in his TV ads. “English is the door to opportunity in America,” he said in a recent debate. “If our children cannot speak English fluently, it robs them of their ability to compete for jobs.”
Backers of bilingual ed have denounced Ron Unz, the California businessman who is spearheading the national bilingual debate, as “hateful” and “spiteful.” Gerardo Villacres, director of the state’s Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce, said last month, “Half of the words in his name says Nazi on it, and that says a lot.” Charming fellow, Gerardo.
Mr. Unz can be annoying or worse, but he’s right on this issue and the extreme reaction against him is explained by the bilingual lobby’s fear that their expensive 30-year-old gravy train will end. “Their message to middle-class Hispanics is to incorrectly claim that Unz is trying to wipe out Spanish and extinguish a distinctive Latino culture,” says California parent Martha Montelongo; she adds that even after such scare tactics 40% of Hispanics voted to end bilingual education in both California and Arizona.
That level of Hispanic support has convinced bilingual backers that they can win only if they scare middle-class whites. In 1998, their efforts failed in California even after a $1.5 million donation from the owner of the Spanish-language Univision TV empire. This year liberal heiress Pat Stryker has donated an astonishing $3 million to defeat the Unz initiative in Colorado. That’s the TV-time equivalent of $25 million in California.
The heiress’s money has paid for a slew of TV ads with doomsday music that claim “Amendment 31 will knowingly force children who can barely speak English into regular classrooms, creating chaos and disrupting learning.” The Rocky Mountain News’s “Ad Watch” called the veiled warnings about a swarming immigrant horde “inexcusable.” Where are La Raza, Maldef and the other self-styled Hispanic lobbies in response to this demagoguery? They don’t seem to mind anti-immigrant innuendo as long as it helps preserve bilingual ed booty.
The flood of money and TV ads in Colorado has apparently spooked Governor Owens, a popular conservative who’s otherwise getting lots of good press, including in these columns. Mr. Owens believes the U.S. needs a common language, but he is opposing Amendment 31 on the technical grounds that it allows parents to sue school officials if they don’t enforce the law. Mr. Owens calls this “a fatal flaw,” but in California no such lawsuits have been filed since the Unz initiative passed.
In Massachusetts, Mr. Romney has also expressed concern about the lawsuit provision but still backs the initiative. He says he will work with the legislature to modify it once it passes. It’s sad to see Mr. Owens pander to Hispanic lobbies and avoid a debate on the failures of bilingual education. If the initiative is defeated, the losers will be the 70,000 children now trapped in Colorado’s bilingual programs.
It’s sometimes difficult to separate those who support a common language that helps to undergird a common national culture — the classic view of those of us who back assimilation — from those who harbor animosity to more immigrants. Both will be attacked by ethnic separatists who want to squelch debate. We think the voters can sort out the difference and make the right call in Massachusetts and Colorado, much as they’ve already done in Arizona and California.