LONG-STANDING AND widespread qualms about the state of bilingual education have broken the surface — as usual — in California. A ballot initiative is afoot to curtail sharply the conditions under which it can be offered. Proposition 227 would essentially eliminate the current elaborate structure, under which non-English-speaking students are taught academic subjects in their own language (in four-fifths of cases, Spanish) while studying English separately part of the day until they are ready to switch over. It would substitute a one-time intensive English-immersion program with a strict one-year time limit, though waivers would be available.

The stated purpose of the traditional approach to bilingual education has always been “mainstreaming” — getting students to the level of proficiency for all-day English as quickly as possible, then transferring them. But in practice, too many students are not tested and are left to stagnate in native-language classes for as long as five years. This cheats students of the intensive immersion they need for true fluency, and it frustrates parents who want their kids fully integrated into American culture. Much of the estimated 70 percent support for Proposition 227 is Latino.

The question of how best to help kids who come into the school system without language skills ought to be pedagogical, not political, and attempts to answer it with a blunt political instrument such as an initiative are inevitably clumsy. The new proposal, imposed as it would be at the state level, runs the risk of cutting too far the other way and ignoring kids’ or localities’ needs; this is the Clinton administration’s (rather lame) stated argument for announcing its opposition.

But as this suggests, the politics of bilingual education long since drifted from the strictly educational, and the run-up to the initiative (slated for the June 1 primary) is fogged with other issues. Among supporters, the drift has been toward related but separate goals such as maintaining native-language fluency and cultural awareness, not to mention the employment of native-language teachers. Among opponents, too often, the drift has been toward nativist politics and more general opposition to the spread of other languages than English.

Whatever one’s views on any of these goals, they should not interfere with what ought to be a community’s base-line civic obligation to help newly immigrant kids get the tools they need to function in America.

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