For decades, bilingual education has been praised as a godsend for schoolchildren who are not proficient in English. In California, 1.3 million public school children, 23% of the total, fit that description; over the past decade the number has more than doubled. California’s future depends on these children becoming fluent in English. Yet each year only 5% of the state’s public school students not previously proficient in English are found to have gained English proficiency.

I had my own taste of bilingual education in 1989, when I began renting part of my home to a Mexican family. The youngest of the five children, Ulises, was then in the second grade at Valerio Elementary School in the Los Angeles community of Van Nuys. The school branded him a slow learner, which puzzled me, since Ulises seemed to show above-average intelligence at times. What’s more, Ulises spoke English better than he did Spanish. Since both of Ulises’ parents worked away from home and I worked out of the house we shared, I agreed to be listed as a contact for times when teacher-parent communications were necessary.

Segregating Latinos

One day I received a call from the school’s bilingual coordinator, a teacher whose job it was to sign up children for bilingual classes. She told me that Ulises was not ready for transition to English-only classes, and she asked for my approval for him to continue in a bilingual class in the next grade. But Ulises’ English was better than his Spanish, I responded. She insisted, however, that he would do better in the re learning, and the language that they’ll need to succeed in the U.S.

It’s no surprise that most Latino parents are opposed to bilingual education as soon as they find out what it is. Indeed, 83% of Latino respondents to a Los Angeles Times poll last month said they oppose bilingual education. One of the first things parents grasp is that bilingual education is not English-as-a-second-language instruction. ESL students’ native languages vary, but they all learn English together. ESL teachers are not required to be bilingual, because ESL is taught not by translation but by immersion in English. My wife, Ines, knew very little English when she emigrated from Mexico in 1989. After two years of ESL classes at night, however, she became fluent.

When asked why, if ESL is so successful with adults, it isn’t used with children, most ESL teachers simply repeat the dogma of bilingual education. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, says that bilingual students who first master Spanish, then make a transition to English, do at least as well academically in the long run as most of their English-only counterparts. Yet there is no research suggesting this conclusion.

What research does indicate is that too many Latino students end up not speaking either Spanish or English well. Scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills show that California fourth-graders who move to English-only classes from Spanish instruction are hopelessly unable to perform well in English. The state’s Latino students have consistently scored the lowest of any ethnic group on the Scholastic Assessment Test, and have the highest dropout rate, 40%. Figures from California’s Department of Education show that while the number of the state’s public school students in bilingual programs (or certified eligible for those programs) more than doubled from 1981 to 1993, the percentage of these making it into English-only classes dropped by more than half (see chart).

Why do California’s bilingual educators persist? Perhaps the most powerful reason is money. Bilingual education is a $500 million-a-year industry in California alone. The size of budgets designated for bilingual education depends on how many students are enrolled in the program, giving educators at all levels a big incentive to sign up ever more students for bilingual programs.

End the Boondoggle

Where will it end? A grass-roots campaign called English for the Children has been circulating a petition that would let California’s voters curtail bilingual education in the state’s public schools. If the petition receives the signatures of 433,000 registered California voters by Nov. 13, the state will hold a referendum in June 1998 on the group’s proposed initiative, which would require that all public school instruction be conducted in English. Exceptions would be made for students who are already proficient in English, and for those whose parents can demonstrate that bilingual education would help them learn English better.

A decade ago, 80% of the Los Angeles teachers’ union voted against bilingual education–teachers presumably realize that it wastes money the schools could be spending elsewhere. It’s time that parents of bilingual students have the chance to end this boondoggle and get their children on the road to English proficiency, the quickest path to success American-style.

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