Bilingual programs held accountable in California

Accountability. That concept shouldn’t be foreign to America’s public schools, which produce millions of report cards on students at this time of year. But too often, trying to get a report on how the schools themselves are performing can be a recipe for frustration.

Nowhere has accountability been more elusive than in bilingual education. What kinds of programs are employed to teach English to students who don’t already know it? Which schools utilize which methods? How many students are enrolled in bilingual instruction? What determines whether students are placed in such programs? How quickly are students supposed to segue into English-only classes, and how soon does it actually happen?

Ask such questions of school officials in many parts of the country, and your reward will be a shrug or a blank stare.

Indeed, a decade ago the Little Hoover Commission, a California government-efficiency panel, put exactly those questions to the state’s deputy superintendent of public schools. Her answers boiled down to three words: We don’t know.

Two years ago — in June 1998 — California voters signaled that their patience had run out on a bilingual education system immune from reporting or review. They would no longer tolerate a black hole in the middle of the state education budget, sucking up hundreds of millions of dollars annually — the bureaucrats couldn’t say how much exactly — with results that went systematically unscrutinized.

In its place, voters enacted Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative. It replaced the old, standards- free bilingual system with a simple new mandate: Non-English-speaking students must undergo a one-year-and-out English-immersion program.

Supporters of Proposition 227 noted that the state’s Catholic parochial schools, which enroll tens of thousands of Hispanic and Asian children — many from immigrant families and poor backgrounds — immerse all students in English from kindergarten forward. In contrast, immigrant children in California public schools often had been allowed to linger for years in ” transitional” bilingual programs where Spanish was the primary language, and many students never gained the English mastery required for success in the commercial mainstream.

One thing that Proposition 227 accomplished right away was to make education officials finally focus on quantifiable results.

Except for families who exercised Proposition 227’s opt-out provision and elected for their children to remain in bilingual instruction, there is now a uniform English-immersion mandate up and down California. Each new report on student achievement is now analyzed by all sides in the debate as a yardstick to the immersion program’s performance.

Early statistics suggest the program is working. The San Jose Mercury News reviewed test scores for limited- English-speaking students last year and found those in immersion programs scoring bigger scholastic gains than students in bilingual classrooms. The Los Angeles Daily News reported that a record number of “English learners” in the city’s public schools made the transition to English proficiency during the first full year of Proposition 227’s implementation.

More than 32,400 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District — 10.3% of students learning English — achieved fluency between December 1998 and December 1999, according to district records. That compares with 8% during the last full year under bilingual education.

In the end, one of the strongest arguments against bilingual education may be precisely the education establishment’s energetic failure to track and publicize results. When school officials tell us that the dog ate their report card, it’s safe to suspect their programs haven’t been earning A’s.


Harold Johnson is an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has litigated in support of Proposition 227, California’s “English for the Children” law.

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