California’s schools have been wrestling for nearly three decades with how to help limited-English proficient students become proficient in English and competent in content areas such as literature, math and social studies. Bilingual education was created to address this task. Bilingual education became the law of California following the 1973 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols. Today, one in four California students receives bilingual education.
Despite this history, California’s system of bilingual education is not perfect and its critics have sponsored a statewide ballot initiative called the "English for the Children" initiative for the June 1998 election. Proposition 227, primarily sponsored by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, will eliminate bilingual education in this state.
Prop. 227 will replace bilingual education with sheltered English Immersion classes wherein limited-English proficient students across age and language groups would be placed in the same classroom. The primary language of instruction would be English. Further, after one year, these limited-English proficient students would be placed in a regular classroom with English-speaking students where they will be asked to sink or swim. Teachers and administrators can be sued if they do not follow Prop. 227.
Thus far, polls show that Proposition 227 will pass. Ironically, the proposition’s success will be aided by minority voters fed up with bilingual education. In a state that is fast approaching a minority majority state, the opposition to bilingual education in the Asian American and Latino communities is rather interesting. Insight into this odd convergence can be found in the legacy and practice of bilingual education.
Bilingual education has two main goals: to help students acquire English as quickly as possible and to achieve proficiency in content subjects without delay. Bilingual education is based on the premise that learning is enhanced if students understand the language of instruction. Language learning is accelerated and students’ acquisition of content areas is not on hold until they become proficient in English. Despite the favorable predictions of bilingual education, there are many indications that may explain Asian American parents’ subdued support for bilingual education.
Over the years, bilingual education has not produced in our students the level of English proficiency or competency in content areas that some would have expected. I sympathize with those parents who send their children to bilingual classes in which there are unqualified bilingual teachers equipped with inadequate bilingual curriculum materials. When parents find that bilingual classrooms are located on the outskirts of school campuses in some bungalows, or state officials no longer mandate bilingual education allowing local school districts to use discretion whether to even have a bilingual education program, the message is clear regarding the value of bilingual education. It is embarrassing that in 1998, bilingual education is still badly in need of reform. We cannot allow politicians, administrators and educators to continue to use bilingual education and language-minority communities as political play toys. Their halfhearted support for and benign neglect of bilingual education cannot continue.
It is important that Asian parents understand that bilingual programs work. However, our current system must be improved. There are a plethora of sound educational studies demonstrating the effectiveness of bilingual education improving students’ psychological and educational functioning. Proposition 227 attempts to ban bilingual education. This is a meat ax approach to a troubled instructional program. What is needed are precise surgical changes to enhance those aspects of bilingual education that are weak. The body of bilingual education is still righteous, correct and alive and the Asian community should rally to support bilingual education.
Parents clearly want the best for their children. By keeping bilingual education and instituting with conviction the appropriate reforms, bilingual education can once again properly serve our children. For the well-being of our children, this is the best and only approach. Voting for Proposition 227 will destroy this opportunity, because it will not reform bilingual education, it will end it. Reform is needed, not Proposition 227.
Leland Y. Yee, a former member of the San Francisco School Board, is now a San Francisco supervisor.