Bilingual program resists easy fixes

PROP. 227: Ballot initiative would not solve the problems of a troubled system.

Opponents of Proposition 227, the bilingual-education initiative on California’s June 2 ballot, have a difficult task before them. Like the issue itself, their arguments against the statute are complex and resist distillation into sound-bite campaign slogans.

Supporters of the initiative, on the other hand, have only to ask voters this: Should all California schoolchildren learn English?

Of course they should. This simplistic question has nothing to do with bilingual education in general or with the ballot initiative in particular, but it is how many voters prefer to think about the issue. And this, as much as anything, helps explain why opinion polls show such strong support for Proposition 227, despite the fact that almost no one has actually read it yet.

It would be nice if the issue were as simple as asking whether kids should learn English. But it isn’t. And by ignoring the complexities of bilingual instruction in its superficial attempt to “reform” the system, Proposition 227 threatens to dangerously undermine the quality of education received by more than a million children. California can’t afford the long-term consequences of such a mistake, and the Star recommends a No vote on the initiative.

The newspaper does not typically announce its endorsements this long before an election. In this case, however, the Editorial Board concluded that voters need to spend as much time as possible analyzing and debating the initiative because of its far-reaching effects, the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding anything associated with race or ethnicity in California, and the susceptibility of this issue to misleading oversimplification.

DEFINING TERMS

One of the greatest barriers to reasoned debate about the initiative is determining just what Californians mean when they talk about “bilingual education.”

In outline, it seems straightforward enough: A 20-year-old state law requires that students who don’t speak English as their primary language be offered academic instruction in their native tongues while they also acquire English proficiency.

The reasoning behind this is equally straightforward: Youngsters cannot afford to suspend their study of math, science, history and other academic subjects during the years it would take them to become fluent enough in a new language to grasp complex concepts.

In actual practice, however, there are almost as many approaches to carrying out this mandate as there are school districts in California. Some of these programs work well. Some of them fail miserably.

The failures have achieved wide notoriety. In Los Angeles, for example, Hispanic parents boycotted one school after administrators refused to move their children into English-only classes. Districts in Santa Barbara and Orange counties have received waivers from the state so they can put more emphasis on English immersion. Successes — and there are many, including several here in Ventura County — go unnoticed.

WHAT IT WOULD DO

Proposition 227 would replace all existing bilingual education programs with a “sheltered immersion” program. Students would have at most a year to learn English under this program; they would be moved into English-only classes after that, ready or not.

Parents could request continued academic instruction in a child’s native language, but schools would have to offer such classes only if at least 20 students signed up.

Nine months of part-time study (students are in school only a quarter of each day, and for only half the days in a year) is simply not enough to become fluent in a new language. The initiative ignores a proven principle of cognitive development: Children learn language at varying speeds depending on their age and stage of brain development. A year might be enough for a kindergarten student; it would be cruelly inadequate for a teen-ager just entering the system.

The initiative also fails to provide any testing mechanism to gauge whether the new approach is succeeding. Measuring the outcome is a fundamental element of any experiment, something the initiative’s author, Ron Unz — trained as a physicist — should know.

Even more troubling, the initiative specifically invites lawsuits to enforce its provisions. It directs that those suits be filed not against school districts, but against individual teachers, administrators and school board members, holding them personally liable for fees and damages. That element alone is a fatal flaw, encouraging use of the courts to resolve disputes that are better settled through administrative channels.

A BETTER APPROACH

Almost no one, in or out of the educational establishment, offers an unqualified defense of the current system. Nearly a quarter of the state’s 5.5 million schoolchildren have limited English proficiency, and an unacceptably tiny fraction of them achieve fluency each year.

Proposition 227, however, would merely trade this problem for another: more minority and immigrant children receiving substandard educations because they cannot understand their classroom lessons.

Different communities have different needs, different populations, different resources available to them. There must be a statewide effort to bring coherence to the system and improve outcomes across the board, but it should concentrate on setting tough standards, establishing an assessment procedure to make sure schools meet those standards, and providing districts the resources — from teacher training to textbooks — they require to succeed. Individual communities should then be allowed to decide for themselves how to meet the goals set by the state.

This was the approach of legislation co-sponsored last year by local Assemblyman Brooks Firestone and Sen. Dede Alpert of San Diego. Although SB 6 received bipartisan support and passed the Senate, it stalled in the Assembly.

Instead of the flexible approach offered by SB 6, Proposition 227 would impose a one-size-fits-all solution that is based on dangerously false assumptions. Instead of a meaningful effort to fix an ailing system, it appears intended primarily to tap public anxieties about race, culture and language to further the political careers of its sponsors, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and 1994 gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, and Gloria Matta Tuchman, a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction.

California voters should reject this illusory quick-fix and pressure legislators to work out a more nuanced solution to a problem that has been ignored for too long.



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