If a pending state Senate bill purporting to reform bilingual education becomes law, it could ignite ethnic tensions in California for years to come.
The fundamental principle behind the bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos), is local control–namely, placing most decisions on language acquisition policy in the hands of locally elected school boards. But supporters seem not to have thought through the real-life consequences of their proposal.
First, the Alpert-Firestone bill would have almost no actual impact on the half a million California schoolchildren currently locked into our system of Spanish-only bilingual education. The overwhelming majority of these students are in just a handful of huge school districts–nearly half are in the Los Angeles Unified School District alone–and the elected school boards and educational administrations of these districts are absolutely and totally committed to maintaining bilingual education programs. Placing decision-making in the hands of these same individuals is simply a means of ratifying the status quo.
The secondary and unintended consequences of the Alpert-Firestone bill are damaging, rather than merely ineffective.
There are about 7,000 elected school board members in California and tens of thousands of other individuals who eagerly eye these seats, which often represent the starting rung on the ladder of political advancement. School board elections receive minimal media coverage and have very low voter turnout, while most candidates are underfunded and therefore desperate to find some issue–any issue–by which to separate themselves from the pack and draw potential supporters to the polls.
By placing bilingual education policy squarely in the hands of local school boards, passage of the Alpert-Firestone bill would provide every prospective school board candidate from San Diego to Yolo County with the lure of the hot-button political issue of bilingual education. And this would be a severe threat to the well-being of our schools.
Although the vast majority of Californians of all backgrounds dislike bilingual education, supporters are far better organized and more politically active than opponents, which helps to explain its long-standing survival in the face of failure and unpopularity. In low-turnout school board races, energy and activist organization often outweigh raw polling numbers. Both pro- and anti-bilingual candidates might find raising the issue to be in their political interests, if only to mobilize their base. Campaigns on potentially divisive social issues are almost inevitably dominated by the most strident forces on both sides, who symbiotically feed off each other’s extremist rhetoric. It has required forethought and tremendous effort to prevent this from being the immediate fate of our own “English for the Children” (Proposition 227) initiative drive, and our continued success over the next few months is by no means completely assured. If thousands of local school board candidates each year are bludgeoning each other with the bilingual education issue, one can easily imagine the level of ethnic haranguing and counter-haranguing that would quickly result. The dreadful busing wars of the late 1970s might seem localized and tame by comparison.
Since bilingual education is widely unpopular, except among a fraction of Democratic activists, passage of the Alpert-Firestone bill would probably provide a long-term political advantage to partisan Republicans. This may explain the overwhelming Republican support for the legislation when it was introduced last year.
Support for the Alpert-Firestone bill by the California Teachers Assn. and other union organizations is much more difficult to understand, since the measure gives local conservative activists the one political weapon that might regularly overcome the organizational and financial advantages of union-backed school board candidates in most local districts.
But neither sincere liberals nor sincere conservatives should support a measure that could turn language education into a permanent political football. Consider the utter incoherence of educational policy in a possible “swing” school district: A 4-3 pro-bilingual school board majority might preserve bilingual programs, then be replaced at the next election by a 4-3 anti-bilingual majority committed to eliminating them, only to revert to a 4-3 pro-bilingual majority promising to restore them–all in a matter of just a few years. The very real possibility that educational policy for immigrant children could change after every school board election is a recipe for utter chaos.
Ron Unz Is Chairman of the “English for the Children” (Proposition 227) Initiative Campaign. E-mail: [email protected]