Should California’s limited-English-proficient students be placed in regular, mainstream classrooms after one year of English-immersion instruction?

That’s the question at the heart of millionaire Ron Unz’s referendum on bilingual education. It is expected to be decided by state voters in June 1998. An early Los Angeles Times poll on his cleverly named "English for the Children" initiative found 80 percent of the respondents answering "yes."

Once the details are explained, I believe that California voters will change their answer to "no." I don’t believe they will embrace an inflexible state dictate that will dramatically affect the education, not just of the one-fourth of the students who are limited-English-proficient, but of each one of the state’s 5.6 million pupils. They will be offended by the virtually permanent character of this policy straight-jacket. By its own terms, the "English for the Children" initiative cannot be legislatively modified except through a bill passed by both houses of the state legislature by a two-thirds "super-majority" vote and then signed by the governor. Older voters will recall that one generation ago, before the advent of bilingual education in California, a majority of its Hispanic students dropped out before completing the eighth grade.

Perceptive voters will see through Unz’s absolutist claim that bilingual education is responsible for the high Latino drop-out rate. In truth, the overwhelming majority of California’s Latino students have never received bilingual instruction. Maybe, if more had, they wouldn’t have dropped out.

Voters in communities like Calexico know bilingual education works. Ninety-eight percent of Calexico’s students are Hispanic, 30 percent are migrant and the average family income is just $12,000. Seventy-eight percent started out speaking little or no English. Yet the district’s dropout rate is half the statewide average for Latino students. Bilingual education has transformed the lives of the community’s youth. Nearly 80 percent of its high school graduates go on to post-secondary education.

Parents of children enrolled in California’s pace-setting, two-way bilingual education programs should also reject Unz’s English-only dictate. They know quality bilingual programs are preparing children — both English speakers and native speakers of other languages — for the rigorous challenges of global competition.

But most troubling to California voters will likely be the impact of Unz’s straight-jacket initiative on the three-quarters of California’s students who are English-speaking.

Remember, Unz’s proposal wedges 1.4 million LEP students — who in the judgment of any reliable educational researcher, will not be English-fluent after nine months in the classroom — into school desks next to kids who have full mastery of English.

Remember, the vast majority of the state’s LEP pupils are enrolled in self-contained instructional programs specifically designed for them. Federal courts have upheld the constitutionality of separating LEP and English-proficient students because it guarantees LEP students’ access to subject-matter curriculum. Virtually all of these special programs operate not for one, but several years. If language acquisition were easy, most Californians would be multilingual already. By the June election, voters will have realized that "English for the Children" is no more than a costly prescription for chaos in California classrooms.

After nine months of Unz’s structured English-immersion, most LEP students will not only remain LEP, but they will have fallen behind native-English-speaking classmates in subject-matter learning. Precious little math, science, history or civics will be learned by them during those months of English immersion, especially if they are grouped, as the initiative suggests, on their degree of their "LEPness" rather than on the basis of their age, native language or prior education.

Imagine if you will the impact of the Unz initiative in its second year when 1.4 million children transfer into mainstream classrooms. Hundreds of thousands of teachers, lacking training and experience in educating LEP students and already struggling to help English-proficient students meet higher academic standards, will suddenly have to contend with impossible disparities in student language proficiency and academic preparation. What are they to do? Ignore the instructional needs of LEP students? Or "dumb-down" academic instruction to accommodate the limited-English skills of some students? No matter what course teachers choose, they will not be able to help all students develop to their full potential.

The true costs, both human and fiscal, are certain to grow in the third and following years. Unable to keep up with their native English-speaking classmates, large numbers of LEP students will be retained in grade to "catch up" in their academic studies. Teachers, non-promoted students, and taxpayers will be caught up in a spiral of frustration and costly underachievement.

If you have any doubts about this scenario, recall that the average Hispanic student in California was held back more than two grades until Ronald Reagan signed the law scrapping the state’s English-only school mandate in 1967.

Providing a quality education to the 5.6 million students enrolled in California’s public schools is a tall order that does not admit to easy answers or quick fixes. If it supplants the authority of elected local school boards, the Unz initiative will create educational chaos, frustration and costly failure.

James J. Lyons is executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

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