There’s no question that Ron Unz’s proposed “English for the Children” initiative — if it gets enough signatures to appear on the June ballot, as appears likely — would radically change the way non-English-speaking students in California public schools learn to speak this country’s common language. As with any radical change in public policy, the initiative will need an informed debate and an educated electorate to get the full airing it deserves — ingredients too often missing from the California initiative process.
What’s troubling is that, even at this early stage, English for the Children is already being “bumper-stickerized” — described in sound-bite terms that don’t portray it accurately. To varying degrees, the news media — print, radio and television — have been too often guilty of describing the measure as one that would “end” or “eliminate” bilingual education. Occasionally, the initiative’s aim is more accurately portrayed as one that would “limit” or “dismantle” existing bilingual programs; even so, seldom does a story or news report go on to detail the measure’s fine print, which is key to any understanding of what it proposes.
In full, the initiative calls for public-school children who fail English proficiency exams to be educated during a one-year transition period in “sheltered English immersion,” a program conducted mostly in English but geared toward students who are still learning the language. It could include some use of the native language and, if individual schools chose, assistance from bilingual aides. Federal courts have ruled that sheltered immersion is an acceptable program for public-school students in need of help learning English.
More important, however, is that roughly a third of the initiative’s language is devoted to “exceptions” in which parents, legal guardians or school principals could choose to place non-English-speaking children in classes taught totally or partially in their native tongue, which is the practice favored by the Department of Education today. It would require schools to present parents with full descriptions of the educational materials and approaches to be used in mainstream English, sheltered English immersion and native-language instruction courses, and then let them make a decision about what would best suit their child. It would also give principals and superintendents latitude to determine whether a non-English-speaking student needs more intensive help than she or he would get in a sheltered immersion program.
People can argue — they already are — over whether parents who don’t speak English well themselves will be able to understand or be willing to seek out the options available to them under the initiative. That argument and others — whether one year of sheltered immersion would be enough for most children, for example or whether the initiative process is the right venue for the setting of complex public policy — will be well worth having as the initiative comes before voters.
But the debate over whether such a change is warranted ought to at least be aided and informed by a media that provide an accurate description of what the initiative proposes. Even with full and fair portrayal in the media, the conversation about English for the Children will likely degenerate to the bumper-sticker phase soon enough.