Once again a majority of California voters took a bold step towards legalized bigotry by supporting the “English for Children” Proposition 227.
As they have done in previous votes for Propositions 209 and 187, most Californian voters expressed a disdain for minorities and immigrants that reflects the deep racial and ethnic divisions in their state and in our nation.
The influence of sheer malice, the latent and not-so-hidden hatred against those who are different, speak a foreign language or put up signs which English monolinguals cannot read, had an undeniable but unquantifiable effect on this vote. However, fueling wide support for this measure were not only ethnic intolerance, xenophobia and linguistic chauvinism, but also public ignorance about how children learn languages.
Simply speaking English is not the same as mastering English language literacy and fluency, especially for classroom learning. Research has shown that it takes more than just one year – experts say usually four – of English language instruction for most students to meaningfully participate in English- only classes.
Further compounding that ignorance about bilingualism were successful efforts to spread misinformation about bilingual education. As in decades past, false statements were made in the media about Spanish being the only instructional vehicle. In fact, by its very definition, English instruction is part of every bilingual program and occupies a larger segment of time as students move into mostly English classes. Most bilingual programs are based on this Spanish-to-English transition model.
Unfortunately, true “maintenance” and “two-way” bilingual education programs in which students learn in two languages, as they are capable of doing well from an early age, are rare in California and elsewhere in the nation. Yet, among the many tragic consequences of Prop 227 is the destruction of many such exemplary bilingual education programs whose proven effectiveness has won them national awards and recognition.
Another fallacy spun out of the English-only misinformation mill was that whole conundrum about Hispanics’ alleged support of Prop 227. A variety of polls conducted by the Lost Angeles Times and others, gave this impression, and it was repeatedly publicized in print media headlines.
Major newspapers and magazines kept misreporting that 83 percent of Latino parents in the Los Angeles Times poll preferred English only instruction. The poll actually showed that 57 percent preferred some help given to their children in their native language and 17 percent wanted native language instruction until they were ready to learn English. Thus, only 26 percent of Latinos wanted their children taught only in English upon entering school, while 74 percent favored limited or definite use of native language instruction.
Exposing the obvious manipulation of these pollsters, Latinos turned out in record numbers to vote against Prop 227, and rejected it by a margin of two to one. A majority of African-American voters also opposed this mandate.
Nevertheless, this did not stop Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., who introduced a bill to curtail bilingual education in the House, from issuing a press release stating an outright lie that “the most important information about this vote is that an overwhelming number of Hispanic voters – 60 percent – voted for Proposition 227.”
Money also helped pass this English-only proposition. As if the political process were not polluted enough by big money in California, wealthy people such as Ronald Unz – the computer software millionaire who originated Proposition 227 – can create a cause, regardless of its value, virtues or victims, and attract enough money and attention to get it on the ballot.
Democracy is not just about majority vote. A majority of California voters could pass a proposition making Christianity the state’s official religion but that wouldn’t make it con s titutional, let alone democratic. When it comes to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, rights to an equal educational opportunity and equal protection under the law, the civil rights of minorities cannot be violated by any majority vote.
Proposition 227 denies millions of children their rights to an equal educational opportunity by imposing an English-only classroom policy that failed Hispanic children for decades.
A legal challenge has been launched by MALDEF and the ACLU. I hope the judges listening to their case exercise more wisdom and understanding than did most California voters.
Julio Noboa is an educator and free-lance writer. To leave a message for him, call ExpressLine at 554-0500 and enter 4458.