No sooner had Californians voted to end bilingual education programs in their state than a pollster revealed that Coloradans would support a similar initiative – or at least one limiting bilingual instruction to no more than two years. Meanwhile, an education committee in the U.S. House has voted to cut off federal aid for students who linger in bilingual classes for more than three years.
Do you suppose that the U.S. Department of Education, the teachers’ unions, the educational bureaucracy, and the assorted ethnic interest groups who opposed Proposition 227 in California will get the message that the public demands reform? Alas, probably not. After all, the Clinton administration continues to oppose the Denver school district’ s far-from-radical goal of limiting its bilingual program to three years, with exceptions made for students who fall behind.
We don’t relish the prospect of a Colorado version of Prop 227, since it is likely to give districts little discretion in how they handle English instruction for non-native speakers. Yet the right to popular initiative exists for good reason: to function as a safety valve for citizen frustration when the civic elite simply refuses to respond to grass-roots pressure. In California, the unbending establishment got whomped, 62 percent to 38 percent – and it could happen here as well.
After the inevitable court challenge, Prop 227 will put an end to what is described as California’s 22-year “experiment” with bilingual education. As for the parents who voted so heavily for Prop 227, the experiment was over and the results were in: Bilingual education wasn’ t working.
The theory of bilingual education is that non-English speaking children are taught in their native language until they are proficient enough to be taught in English. In practice, too many children who never did learn English were left academically further and further behind. The tip-off to Prop 227’s opponents should have been the considerable number of Hispanic parents who supported an end to bilingual ed, but, hey, what do parents know?
As so often happens in government, the program’s backers refused to admit the need for reform, let alone failure. As passage of 227 became inevitable, the Clinton administration said, well, maybe bilingual education ought to be limited to three years – yet there is reason to doubt the administration’s sincerity.
If administration officials really believed in a three-year limit, they wouldn’t have opposed the House committee’s vote this week. And they long ago would have dropped their opposition to Denver’s moderate reform of its troubled bilingual program.
When moderate reformers are stifled, radical reformers tend to take their place. It happened in California, and if federal officials aren’t careful, it could happen in Colorado, too.