Initiative puts meat ax to bilingual education

The initiative goes overboard, yet another instance in which a real problem---and the Legislature's failure to address it---is met by a sledgehammer solution.

English for the Children, the initiative sponsored by Silicon Valley executive Ron Unz and other opponents of bilingual education in California, will almost certainly qualify for the June primary ballot and, if it does, will almost certainly pass. Just as surely, its passage will have a major impact on bilingual policies from one end of the country to the other.

Six weeks ago, a Los Angeles Times poll found overwhelming support for such a measure, even among Latinos, whose support — by a margin of 84 percent to 16 percent — was slightly larger even than that among Anglo whites. While the wording of the poll was open to some interpretation, and while a vigorous campaign against it might out into that support, not many people doubt that the measure will pass.

Nor should anyone have to look far for reasons. For much of the past generation, the program — designed to teach students with limited English in their native language until they can “”transition”, to English — has been riddled with problems. While the countless national studies in the field have shown mixed and sometimes contradictory results, thousands of California children have been trapped in bilingual programs from which they benefited little.

The problems — a shortage of trained teachers, lack of clear objectives, fuzzy exit criteria — have impinged on one another in sometimes bizarre ways. For lack of bilingual classes in Korean, limited-English-speaking Korean children (to cite one example) were sometimes placed in Spanish bilingual classes. For lack of sufficiently clear standards, children were kept in classes taught in a foreign language long after they became more proficient in English than they were in their native language. For many years, some people in the field were declaring that the real object of the program was not a quick transition to English, but (Hispanic) “cultural preservation.”

Even after some of those things were corrected, parents mounted protests -including a boycott of a Los Angeles school by Latino garment workers — in order to got their children into regular classes. The children, they felt, were being coerced into bilingual classes from which they might not emerge for six years or more and where they seemed to learn little. What they wanted—what all parents wanted—was for their children to learn English and to enter the mainstream as rapidly as possible.

Just as telling, the chief defenders of bilingual ed in recent years have not been parents, but Latino activists and CABE, the California Association for Bilingual Education, the lobby of teachers, counselors and professional associations of bilingual education.

During the last legislative session, they once again exercised their political muscle, blocking a bill sponsored by Sen. Deirdre Alpert that would have implemented a met of moderate reforms to give greater flexibility to local districts to place children into what they regarded as the most appropriate programs. It also required schools to move children into the mainstream in three years or less. The defeat of the Alpert bill makes defense of the existing program even more difficult.

Nonetheless, the initiative goes overboard, yet another instance in which a real problem — and the Legislature’s failure to address it — is met by a sledgehammer solution. The Unz measure, co-sponsored by Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Santa Ana teacher, decrees that all children be taught in English, excepting only those who are “English learners,” who may be “educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period” that is supposed to last no more than a year.

The only other alternative is through waivers for parents who come to the school personally to apply. Schools where 20 or more parents request such waivers will be required to provide bilingual classes, but waivers may not be granted until the child has been in a regular classroom for 30 days during that school year and “it in subsequently the informed belief of the school principal and educational staff that the child has such special physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs that an alternate course of educational study would be better suited.”

In effect, the initiative demands that some of the poorest people in California, most of whom speak no English and don’t know the culture, personally come to the school each year to ask for a waiver. In order to succeed, they’ll have to prove that their child is already failing. And if they do succeed, the child is likely to lose at least 30 days of schooling.

That provision alone raises constitutional equal-protection questions. In the realm of laws that deprive one class of children of their rights to an equal education, it’s hard to imagine a better fit than this.

That’s not to suggest that Unz, who financed a great part of this effort out of his own pocket, is not sincere. He insists, and no doubt believes, that this will provide far better educational opportunities to many of the 1.3 million California children — about one-fourth of total enrollment — who are not native English speakers.

But sometimes bilingual education works, both in teaching and in building confidence, and sometimes premature sink-or-swim mainstreaming fails miserably. Any sensible educational strategy ought to be based on the needs Of the child, not on a state formula. Most will consist of varying combinations of English and native language instruction. what’s offered by Unz and his colleagues contemplates no such flexibility. in their effort to correct-a system that has been far too rigid in driving too -many children to a bilingual dead end, they have created a one-size-fits-all solution that’s as rigid and unfair as the system it replaces.

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