LOS ANGELES — Juana and Florencio left the poverty of their rural Mexican village in 1985 and came to Los Angeles to work in the garment district’s sweatshops.
In 1996, they pulled their three children — all born in Los Angeles — out of school for nearly two weeks until the school agreed to let them take classes in English rather than Spanish.
Seventy other poor immigrant families joined this school boycott in February 1996, insisting that their children be allowed out of the city’s bilingual program, which would not teach English to children from Spanish-speaking homes until they learned how to read and write in Spanish.
In the end, the parents prevailed.
Yet, throughout California and elsewhere in the country, many Hispanic parents are worried that bilingual education programs are keeping their children from learning English.
These children live in Spanish-speaking homes, play in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods and study in Spanish-speaking classrooms.
With little exposure to English in the primary grades, few successfully learn it later.
This is why many Latino parents are backing a California ballot initiative that would end bilingual education for most children in the state. The measure will be put to a vote in June if enough signatures are gathered to put it on the ballot.
School administrators, Latino politicians and other advocates of bilingual education have denounced the measure.
Though they acknowledge the failings of the system, they insist they can fix it with time.
Yet after 25 years, bilingual education has few defenders among Latino parents. In a Los Angeles Times poll this year, 83 percent of Latino parents in Orange County said they wanted their children to be taught in English as soon as they started school.
Only 17 percent of those surveyed said they favored having their children taught in their native language.
One reason bilingual education is so entrenched is money. Bilingual teachers in Los Angeles are paid extra, up to $5,000 a year; schools and school districts receive hundreds of dollars for each child who is designated as having limited proficiency in English.
About $400 million in state and Federal money supports bilingual educational programs in California. Because such money is not readily relinquished, students languish in Spanish-language classes.
Moreover, there are not enough bilingual teachers. In Los Angeles, the shortfall has been so severe that the city has granted emergency credentials to people whose only claim to a classroom lectern is their ability to speak Spanish.
Latino parents know that placing their children in English-language classes will not cure the many problems plaguing California schools, where the Latino dropout rate is 40 percent and Latino students have consistently low achievement test scores. Unless these students can learn in English, future school reform efforts will not help them.
Most parents who participated in the school boycott last year labor in garment district sweatshops.
Others wait on tables, clean downtown offices or sell fruit or tamales on street corners.
All struggle on average monthly incomes of $800.
Education is their only hope for a better future for their children. The first step is learning English.
Alice Callaghan, an Episcopalian priest, is director of the Las Familias del Pueblo community center.