Debating bilingual education

The California State Board of Education is on the verge of undoing Proposition 227

A set of regulations proposed by an obscure administrative agency in Sacramento threatens to undo one of the most successful and momentous reforms of public policy in the United States over the past 10 years.

That reform was Proposition 227, passed by a wide margin by California voters in June 1998, which limited foreign language instruction in public schools to one year, unless parents requested a waiver. For nearly three decades, California’s “bilingual education” programs kept children in Spanish language instruction for three, five, or even seven years. As a result, Latino students too often never fully mastered English, scored poorly on tests, and were not fully able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the bounteous economies of California and America. This was no trivial matter: Millions of young people were affected. California in 2000 had 4 million Latinos under age 18, 1 out of 3 young Latinos in America.

Proposition 227 has been a resounding success. From 1998 to 2001, Latino test scores have shot upward in California. The percentage of Latinos with reading test scores above the 50th percentile increased from 21 percent in 1998 to 35 percent in 2001. The percentage of Latinos with math test scores above the 50th percentile increased from 27 percent in 1998 to 46 percent in 2001. These are cold figures. But think for a minute of their effects on individual lives. Opportunities are being opened up for hundreds of thousands of young Americans. The effects on millions of lives-and on the quality of life in the nation as a whole-are incalculable.

But these gains are now jeopardized by regulations proposed by the California State Board of Education. These regulations would eliminate the requirement that all limited-English students under 10 spend the first 30 days of every school year in an English-language program before a waiver allowing them into Spanish-language instruction could be obtained. Perhaps even more important, they would give teachers rather than parents the right to apply for waivers to place students in bilingual programs.

Giving teachers the right to request waivers undermines the whole program. Until 1998, California Spanish-language teachers were typically paid a premium over ordinary teachers’ salaries; they and their unions tried to keep people in Spanish-language instruction to maximize the number of such teaching positions. In addition, administrators also strove to keep children in Spanish-language instruction, for ideological reasons or simply, in the quaint phrase, to keep more money coming into the building. The State Board of Education’s regulations would give greedy teachers and administrators and those determined to frustrate the will of the voters the ability to overturn Proposition 227.

These regulations would also overturn the policy of Gov. Gray Davis. Davis opposed Proposition 227 in 1998 (as did his Republican opponent, Dan Lungren). But Davis has also adopted a policy of conscientiously carrying out the letter and intent of referendum measures passed by the voters, even if he opposed the measures initially. He has done so at some political cost. He has vetoed measures passed by the heavily Democratic legislature to undercut or overturn Proposition 227. He has come forward with his own measures to help Spanish-language children and parents master English, including a proposal based on Hebrew language instruction in Israel. Davis learned from his experience as chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s that a governor can pay a political price for undercutting the will of the voters as expressed in referendum and that a governor who does so also produces less-than-optimum policy results. He has acted on this insight. Gray Davis deserves much of the credit for the sharp rise in test scores by California’s Latino children-a trend of national significance.

So it is surprising that the members of the State Board of Education, all of them appointees of the governor, are on the verge of acting to undercut the will of the voters, which Davis himself has been scrupulous to observe. Davis has said on several occasions that he expects his appointees-indeed, even his appointees to judgeships-to keep the promises he made to the voters in his campaign. One of those promises was to carry out policies established by the voters in referendum even when he took the opposite position. Perhaps he is just not aware that his appointees on the State Board of Education are breaking his promises. A governor has to keep track of many things, and Davis’s record entitles him to a presumption of good faith. But isn’t it about time that he get the word to the State Board of Education and tell them not to overturn a policy that was passed by the voters and whose happy results are one of the important succcesses of his administration.

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