Bilingual education is a difficult public policy issue, partly because emotions are so inflamed, and partly because it is a debate built on sand. The underlying justifications for bilingual education seem constantly to shift, depending on the speaker, as do the accusations against it. Even so, there are two core issues that both supporters and opponents of bilingual education should be able to agree on.
First, when a student has only limited ability to understand, read, speak and write English, the schools must help him or her learn English as quickly and as effectively as possible.
Second, the English-for-the-Children initiative, which would outlaw bilingual education, is an inappropriate public policy intrusion into the rights of parents, educators and schools.
Proponents of the initiative are collecting signatures to get the measure on the Nov. 7 ballot. Expectations are they will gather sufficient signatures. The initiative, which is being financed primarily by California millionaire Ron Unz, would allow non-English-speaking students to be placed for one year in an English-immersion class.
It allows parents to enroll their children in bilingual classes only if they request a waiver. The key problem with the initiative is that it takes a decision that should be made by parents and educators and writes it instead into law.
Bilingual education may be the best solution for some students. Immersion may be better for others. But these are judgments to be made individually, by parents and professionals considering each child, not by a meat-cleaver state law. The very best course of action is for voters to refuse to sign the initiative. If Unz and other English-only backers fail to get their initiative on the ballot, then calm might prevail.
As long as the ballot issue boils, the questions about bilingual eduation will be posed in political rather than educational terms. It will be difficult to focus on such important issues as how to educate students with limited English.
It is important to keep in mind that the initiative is not about the effectiveness of any particular bilingual program. It is not about the benefits of being able to speak another language in an increasingly multicultural world. It is not about the benefits of students of Hispanic heritage learning an appreciation for the cultures from which they and their parents came. Nor is it about the best ways to teach Anglo students Spanish. Those are all important issues. But the initiative addresses none of them.
Here is what the initiative is about. The initiative wants voters to restrict the ability of teachers to make professional decisions about how they teach students. And the initiative wants to restrict the ability of parents to choose the education that they believe is best for their children.
Readers of these pages know that we express a great deal of skepticism about the effectiveness of bilingual education as it is currently structured. We have bemoaned the failure of bilingual education to move students into the mainstream in an effective manner.
However, this initiative is no way to fix those problems. The initiative should fail. It is poor public policy.
Educators should recognize, however, that the initiative does carry an important message: There is an abiding distrust of the educators in charge of bilingual education.
Educators need to acknowledge, too, that they cannot reverse that distrust with fuzzy goals, undefined criteria and poor measurement of performance.
Educators should fight the initiative. Yet at the same time, they should accept its message that they need to deal with the problem.