IN 1994 it was benefits for illegal immigrants. Two years later it was positive discrimination for racial minorities; a ban on this has just got past its final legal hurdles. Next year it will almost certainly be bilingual education, the system by which Latino children (and sometimes those of other races) are taught, at least in the early years, in their own language rather than English. Every election year Californians get a chance to tell their rulers what is on their minds, thanks to the system of citizen-inspired ballots; and what is on their minds, quite simply, is race.
So far, these ballot-inspired debates have proved disappointingly predictable. Is there any chance that bilingual education will be any better? Not at first sight. The man behind the campaign to scrap it is a Republican multi-millionaire, Ron Unz, and the usual ethnic activists are already lining up to impugn his motives. Theresa Bustillos, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, dubs this the third in a row of anti-Latino measures.
Look a little closer, however, and the politics becomes more interesting. Mr Unz, who made his money in software, is a libertarian rather than a Buchananite, with an impeccable record on race relations; he was one of the most outspoken opponents of Proposition 187, which denied benefits to illegal immigrants. The co-chairman of his campaign, Gloria Matta Tuchman, is a Mexican-American teacher. The drive to gather the 433,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot is being organised by Progressive Campaigns Inc, a left-leaning organisation that has previously lent its support to the minimum wage and the medical use of marijuana. As for the Republican Party, it is so terrified of further accusations of immigrant-bashing that it is refusing to touch the subject.
Mr Unz says that he first got interested in the subject in 1996, when he read accounts of a boycott of a school in LA’s garment district organised by parents who were furious that their children were not learning any English. Last year a poll by the Center for Equal Opportunity, a think tank based in Washington, DC, found that 81% of Latino parents prefer their children to learn English as soon as possible. Most Latinos realise that English literacy is the key to upward mobility–providers of English courses are the top advertisers on Spanish-language television–and worry that bilingual education is nothing more than a poverty trap. No wonder that Latino political leaders do not list defending bilingual education among their top five priorities.
Nonetheless, it is a vast industry in California. About 1.3m children–almost a quarter of California’s school population–attend bilingual classes at a cost of more than $300m a year. The schools have a huge financial incentive for maintaining the system. Bilingual teachers are paid up to $5,000 a year extra; and schools that provide bilingual teaching are eligible for a slew of federal and state grants.
Mr Unz regards bilingual education as the “single most bizarre and unsuccessful government programme in California today.” He argues that only about 5% of children who enter the bilingual stream graduate into English-speaking classes each year–for all practical purposes bilingual is in fact monolingual education–and that huge numbers of children leave school unable to read or write in the official language of their adopted country. He also points out that the legislation sanctioning this gigantic programme expired a decade ago.
His objections to the programme run deeper, however. The American tradition has always been one of assimilation, he argues; now, thanks to the bilingual education movement, schools are deliberately leaving children imprisoned in the barrio. Mr Unz’s ballot measure argues that the state should stop teaching non-English-speaking children in their native language, unless their parents specifically ask for it, and should instead give them a year of “sheltered English immersion”–with teachers using simple English–before putting them into mainstream classrooms. It also calls for an extra $50m a year for the next ten years for adult literacy, an idea that has infuriated the nativist right.
Mr Unz’s campaign has a good chance of success. Most Americans–including most immigrants–instinctively feel that the main job of schools is to ensure that children are proficient in the language of their adopted country. The majority of teachers, usually bastions of conservatism, are unhappy with bilingual education. Many blacks resent the fact that bilingual education diverts resources from their own children; hence the fruitless attempt to get “ebonics” classified as a distinct language.
Even bilingual education’s supporters admit that the current system is a mess. The California legislature has been trying to do something about it for years, but has been paralysed by infighting. Every year children from ethnic minorities are railroaded into bilingual classes even if they speak English at home. The shortage of bilingual teachers is so severe in places such as Los Angeles that emergency teachers are being recruited whose only credentials are their ability to speak a language other than English. Latino schoolchildren–the programme’s main clients–have the lowest test scores of any ethnic group in the state, and the highest school drop-out rate. “The trouble with bilingual education is that it’s expensive and it doesn’t work,” says Joel Kotkin of Pepperdine University. “Apart from that, it’s fine.”