Test results are in, and they say that California’s schools have come up with a lesson for us all.
It’s now two years since California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 227 to curtail bilingual education and instead favor English immersion in the state’s public schools. Liberals greeted the plan with howls of doom. The schoolkids, however, responded by handily learning English — and a host of other subjects. Test results are showing dramatic gains for limited English speakers, with the biggest payoff in the districts that most strictly followed Prop 227.
Bilingual education began with the theory that before immigrant kids can focus on English, they need five or more years in special classes taught mainly in their native languages. The original bilingual program mandate expired in California in 1987. But the program lived on, despite mounting evidence that Latino parents felt it was depriving their kids of vital skills. Neither political party had the nerve to challenge either the special interests — especially the entrenched teachers — of the bilingual lobby or Latino pols who played the race card. Then in 1998, software entrepreneur Ron Unz put a citizen initiative on the ballot to stop the insanity.
The results suggest that, yes, it is sometimes possible for the power of reason — and even the education of children — to triumph over entrenched political interests. Take the case of Ken Noonan, the superintendent of the Oceanside School District, near San Diego. A co-founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators in the 1970s, he opposed Prop 227 because he feared that compelling students to be taught in English would prompt them to drop out or fall behind in other subjects.
But unlike many other superintendents, Mr. Noonan decided to vigorously enforce the wishes of the voters in passing Prop 227. In his district, students who didn’t speak English were put in an intensive, one-year program and then transferred to regular classes, taught in English.
By now, it is districts such as Mr. Noonan’s that have posted the strongest increases in test scores for limited-English children. Mr. Noonan now says he was mistaken and that without Prop 227 “we would not have learned how quickly and how well kids can learn English.” His district also started a phonics-based reading program, another reform that was opposed for years by the educational establishment.
Mr. Noonan’s district borders Vista Unified, which has similar demographics, but has allowed many of its students to remain in bilingual classes. Vista’s test scores actually fell in most subjects last year. As the nearby graph illustrates, the scores of San Jose Unified, the only district in the state that is exempt from Prop 227, also fall behind those of Oceanside and the rest of the state. Such results are now fueling efforts to reconfigure bilingual education from New York City to Colorado. Arizona will vote this fall on its own version of Prop 227.
The good news here goes even beyond brighter hopes for America’s schoolchildren. For decades, it has been taken as a near-axiom of U.S. politics that liberal ideologues are incapable of changing course, even when faced with crushing evidence that their policies are failing. Welfare has been the most obvious example. The refusal to allow parents to exercise choice and escape failing inner-city schools has been another.
It’s not so much that liberals can’t recognize problems. Rather, their politics requires them to create a permanent infrastructure around their programs: bilingual teachers, special-ed therapists, social workers. Robert Woodson, a former welfare case worker, calls this infrastructure “the Poverty Pentagon.”
Ultimately, the welfare state becomes a source of employment for a lot of liberal foot soldiers who cannot afford to let problems go away. Indeed, the problems must get bigger because their size determines any program’s funding and employment levels. This bureaucratic imperative then takes primacy over the program’s nominal purpose — children, welfare families, immigrants.
The larger lesson of California’s classrooms is that there are ways to shake the failing policies of the welfare state, even some of those most deeply entrenched. Recall that in 1996, a reluctant President Clinton signed a bill ending the federal welfare entitlement. That, too, brought liberal prophecies of doom. Instead, welfare rolls have been cut in half and Al Gore sounds as if he invented welfare reform. Given the success of schools enforcing California’s Prop 227, it seems to us any smart Presidential contender would be ready to claim he invented that, too.