With just over one month left until voters go to the polls, Ron Unz, entrepreneur and author of the controversial Proposition 227, made a rare appearance in San Francisco China-town this week. In spite of recent opposition from the Clinton administration, Unz, who faced a hostile crowd of approximately 300 Asian Americans, Latinos, and whites, confidently stated that the measure to virtually terminate all bilingual education programs statewide would pass.
"The current system doesn’t work; it is a disaster, and on June 2 [Proposition 227 will win], and current systems will be gone nationwide shortly thereafter."
We believe that Proposition 227, which would force all limited–English speaking students into a single class for one year to learn the language using English only, is inherently flawed. But we believe that current bilingual education programs are flawed as well.
To that end, Unz’s initiative, called English for the Children, was an important step in forcing us to re-examine our current school system and how we have or haven’t been serving the 1.4 million limited-English speaking children–including 200,000-plus Asian Americans–across the state. Too often, children aren’t learning English.
In a perfect world, with the global economy continuing to grow, we recognize that teaching all children to be fluent in English and one or more other languages would ultimately be in all of our best interests. But, given reality, our first priority should be to ensure that all children are taught to speak, read, and write English competently.
A one-size-fits all solution–like Unz’s–may not work for all schools. The California State Board of Education recognized local districts’ autonomy in its decision to let them decide whether to maintain or eliminate bilingual education programs. Often, local school districts, teachers and parents, will know better than the state–or Unz–what teaching methods are most effective in preparing their children for the outside world.
In addition, the Unz initiative’s one-year deadline to learn English seems unrealistic. On the other hand, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s proposal this week to have local districts set three-year goals for children to learn English–and he backed it up with a plan to dedicate twice the amount of federal funds to education. That seems more doable, and more humane, than Unz’s proposal to have all children of all ages and all sexes gather in a single classroom to learn English in one year through English instruction only. It’s hard to visualize how such an atmosphere will help kids learn English any better or faster.
Said Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education at Stanford University who was on the panel with Unz: "Typically it takes three to five years for students to acquire English, and English development and rates of acquisition depends on a number of things … there is little we can do to speed up English acquisition."
What we do need to concentrate our efforts on is not only whether we’re going to teach children English using a combination of English and a student’s native language, or whether we’re going to teach English learners using English only, but on how we’re going to improve the entire school system and equip our local schools with the resources and tools they need to improve current programs."