Although Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz’s “English for the Children” initiative has not yet qualified for the June 1998 ballot, it has already altered the future of bilingual education and the politics that long have surrounded it.

Before the Unz initiative, any effort to overhaul the state’s bilingual-education system invariably gridlocked in the Legislature. But now that early polls indicate that voters, particularly Latinos, favor the Unz proposal, many state Latino legislators are considering whether to introduce legislation of their own “to fix” bilingual education.

If passed, English for the Children would require limited-English students to be taught in English unless their parents requested otherwise. These students would have no more than one year of “sheltered English” instruction–teachers using simple, accessible language–before being transitioned into a regular classroom. The initiative, however, in no way precludes the need for a language-learning policy to both guide and keep educators accountable.

Not that long ago, members of the state Latino Legislative Caucus would have gone down fighting the Unz initiative or, for that matter, any proposal that sought to overhaul bilingual education. Just three months ago, the caucus kept state Sen. Dede Alpert’s bilingual-education reform bill from a floor vote.

But the apparent popularity of the Unz measure has forced state Latino lawmakers to rethink their position on bilingual education. Several key Latino legislators, including Cruz Bustamante, speaker of the Assembly, have been discussing the possibility of amending the Alpert bill to create new legislation that would address some of the main critiques of bilingual education. Among the proposed amendments are a three-year time limit on the bilingual education, a requirement of a minimum of two hours of English instruction a day, and allowing local districts and parents more choice in deciding which teaching methods are best.

By spearheading legislative change in bilingual education, Latino lawmakers could dilute the urgency currently infusing the Unz initiative. Should the Unz measure triumph, even if overwhelmingly, they would be well-positioned to help manage its implementation by supplying content to any new program. And if English for the Children is tied up in the courts, the recent fate of most controversial state initiatives, the Latino-sponsored legislation temporarily could fill the vacuum and satisfy the growing demand for bilingual-education reform.

In the same way that Proposition 187 was about more than illegal immigration, the bilingual-education debate is a proxy battle over the nature of assimilation. For a generation, it has been debated in cultural rather than pedagogical terms. Its supporters often cite the benefits of maintaining children’s ethnic or linguistic heritage and of the increasing importance of multilingualism in the global marketplace. Its opponents insist that immigrants should learn English and fret about how today’s newcomers are not as eager to “Americanize” as were their predecessors.

But bilingual education is not a cultural issue. Indeed, as it is practiced in California, it has nothing to do with bilingualism. According to the state Department of Education, “The primary goal of all [bilingual] programs is, as effectively and efficiently as possible, to develop in each child fluency in English.” The vast majority of bilingual programs in California use “early-exit transitional bilingual education,” in which students are expected to transition into “mainstream English” classes after three or four years of instruction in their primary language. Early-exit programs are designed to teach children how to read and write in their native language in the belief that they will then be better able to learn another language, which is English. They are not meant to make children fully literate in their native language.

Last January, the National Research Council released a report calling most evaluations of bilingual-education programs worthless. The report not only claimed that politicization of the issue has hampered reliable research, but also that scholarly efforts to prove the superiority of either English-only or bilingual education are pointless. The report’s authors urged that studies should focus on identifying the teaching methods that work best in specific communities, according to local needs and available resources.

In California, even bilingual-education supporters don’t think the current system is working. While defending the integrity of primary-language instruction, the California Assn. of Bilingual Educators, a lobbying group, concedes that perhaps 10% or fewer of the state’s bilingual programs are well implemented. A perennial shortage of bilingual teachers is one of the main reasons. California currently needs more than 20,000 additional bilingual teachers to adequately serve the state’s 1.3 million limited-English students. But few proponents have considered the possibility that, while bilingual education works in some cases, it may be too labor- and resource-intensive to be effective on a broad scale.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has fully supported bilingual education for years, there is no evidence that the program is achieving its stated goals. Despite the politics engulfing the program since its inception, LAUSD administrators never have found it necessary to compile reliable longitudinal data to evaluate it. Instead, school board members and administrators usually have relied on rhetoric to defend bilingual education. Carmen N. Schroeder, former head of bilingual instruction for LAUSD, took pleasure in warning that “if we got rid of bilingual education, we’d be creating a huge underclass.”

While federal law requires schools to provide special language instruction to assist English learners in obtaining an equal education, it does not mandate the form that this assistance must take. But for three decades, a mixture of idealism, blind faith and administrative arrogance has kept bilingual education afloat and unassailable. Indeed, the prolonged suppression of any meaningful debate about the efficacy of bilingual education may be one reason why an initiative seeking to undermine primary-language instruction has found a large, receptive audience. The problem is that California’s initiatives are usually the worst way to solve complex issues.

When first introduced, some feared English for the Children would become the third racially divisive ballot measure in as many elections. Six months later, there is a near-universal consensus that bilingual education desperately needs reform. To his credit, Unz has turned what had been a pseudo-cultural debate into an important political one.

To its credit, the Latino caucus, so far, has not caved in to its traditional impulse to take on any and all opponents of bilingual education. But because four of five limited-English students in California are Spanish-speaking, Latino legislators do have an obligation to play a more affirmative role in the debate over the future of primary-language instruction. Since directly opposing the Unz initiative appears politically unviable, Latino officials have a choice between endorsing English for the Children or leading a worthwhile pedagogical debate toward immediate legislative reform of bilingual education.

But regardless of whether the Unz initiative wins or loses, or whether Latino legislators muster enough support to legislate changes in bilingual education, at least there is now widespread agreement that when it comes to properly educating California’s limited-English students, idealism and sound theory are not enough.

Gregory Rodriguez, an Associate Editor at Pacific News Service, Is a Research Fellow at Pepperdine’s Institute for Public Policy.

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