Bilingual Ed In LA

The long adios

Maybe all the folks who didn’t vote in Tuesday’s election know something the rest of us would rather not believe: Elections don’t matter, so long as unelected government bureaucrats still make the important decisions that affect our everyday lives.

Take the decision by California voters to eliminate bilingual education programs in that state, which 61 percent of voters endorsed in a statewide election last June. Most Californians who bothered to go to the polls thought they were voting to change a system that badly served non-English kids by keeping them in native-language classes for years on end. Under the new system, all children who entered school unable to speak English would be put into special “sheltered immersion” classes, where they would spend an intensive year learning English.

But that’s not what has happened in many places around the state, where clever school officials have teamed up with ethnic activists to preserve Spanish as the primary language of instruction.

In San Francisco, the school board decided that city schools were exempt from the provisions of the new law because of an earlier court decision supposedly mandating native-language instruction for non-English speakers. As a result, nearly all of the 8,000 students who had been in bilingual classes before the vote still remain there. But other school districts have had to be more artful in defying the election results. Nowhere have administrators been more cunning than in Los Angeles.

First, some Los Angeles school officials simply decided that the new law allowed as much as 49.9 percent of instruction to be offered in Spanish, since the wording of the ballot measure says only that instruction shall be “nearly all” in English. Second, district officials joined with the local teachers union to train teachers in how to “encourage” parents to opt out of English classes. Under the law, parents who want bilingual classes for their children can seek a waiver from the school district exempting them from the English immersion classes.

But union and bilingual education officials are taking no chances that parents will seek out bilingual classes on their own, so the United Teachers of Los Angeles launched a special program over the summer to ensure parents would make the “right” decision. Doug Lasken, a fifth-grade teacher and union rep, attended one such meeting and wrote about it for the Los Angeles Times. At the meeting, district officials told teachers they should inform parents of kindergarten and first-grade students that if they wanted their children to learn to read, they’d better put them in bilingual classes, since no reading or phonics would be taught in the English immersion program.

The top bilingual official for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Forrest Ross, explained to the group that under “proven bilingual theory” children should be taught to read and sound out letters only after they can already speak and understand a language. In other words, immigrant parents must choose: Do you want your children to learn English or do you want them to learn to read? LAUSD won’t let your children learn both skills during the same school year.

Just in case parents still don’t get the message, LAUSD has come up with another good reason for putting kids in bilingual classes: There aren’t enough English textbooks to go around, so students in English immersion classes will just have to do without. The district claims it didn’t know how many English-language texts would be needed, since the law required school districts to wait 30 days after the start of the school year to permit parents to seek waivers.

Despite all these efforts, only about 11 percent of parents have chosen bilingual over English immersion classes for their children. But those results aren’t likely to discourage school officials who want to thwart the public policies enacted by the citizens of the state. Give unelected bureaucrats enough time and resources, and they’ll figure out a way to circumvent any law that tries to restrict their power.

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