When voters in California despair of a response from their state officials, they turn to referenda. Their latest end-run around recalcitrant government is the “English for the Children” initiative, which would dismantle bilingual education in California. Launched by 35-yearold Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz and Santa Ana school teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, “English for the Children” would replace the state’s current practice of teaching non-English-speaking children in their native language with ?sheltered English immersion” (that is, English designed for new learners). The measure would also provide $50 million a year for adult English classes, provided that those adults agree to use their new skills to teach English to children. Initiative supporters are now gathering signatures to qualify for the June 1998 ballot (about two-thirds of the 450,000 signatures required by November have been collected as I write).
It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact this initiative will have if it passes (and all polls show that it will if it gets on the ballot). In California there are 1.3 million school-age children (23 percent of the statewide total) whose native language is not English. When they show up in public schools in most districts in California, they are placed in a “bilingual” program and receive all their academic instruction in their native language. Thus, the typical classroom for Hispanic immigrant children offers Spanish language textbooks and Spanish oral instruction. English is administered in small doses, 30 to 90 minutes a day, during “English as a Second Language.”
Children who exit these programs five to seven years later typically cannot read or write English. That’s not surprising, since their English instruction only consists of informal English conversation. No phonics, grammar, or academic material in English is permitted, and there is no written work in English. The result: the State Board of Education reports that only five percent of Hispanic students successfully graduate into English-language instruction each year-a 95 percent failure rate. If “English for the Children” passes, these abysmal practice: will be history. Native-language instruction will be replaced with immediate immersion in simple English.
Initiative sparkplug Ron Unz is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur an former candidate for governor (he lost to Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary) who says he always found bilingual education questionable, but decided to act when he learned that L.A. Times polls show 80 percent opposition to bilingual education among Hispanic parents, while no statutes at either the state or federal level mandate today’s ineffective “bilingual” instruction. When I asked Unz if he foresaw lengthy legal delays if the initiative passes (as happened to Propositions 187 and 209), he replied: “Given the strong support we’ve received from prominent Latinos, any liberal judge tempted to block this on the grounds that it violates the civil rights of immigrants would look very foolish.”
I have myself become involved in the bilingual debate. As a teacher and teachers’ union representative at a Los Angeles elementary school, I’m focusing on the role our United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) union has played. In deference to bilingual teachers who make up to $4,000 more a year than teachers who speak only English, UTLA has not oppose the bilingual policy of the L.A. district, despite its poor results. In 1989, a referendum Of UTLA members overwhelmingly opposed the bilingual program, but the results were never published in the union paper. Last June, another UTLA referendum calling for abolition of special pay and protections for the bilingual program lost, but carried a strong 43 percent of teacher votes.
I’ve just finished collecting teacher signatures to qualify a new referendum which, if it passes, will put UI’I-A Oil record as supporting English language instruction for non-English speakers. The measure will also require the union to support the “English for the Children? statewide initiative. My referendum will probably occur this fall. I?ll keep readers of The American Enterprise posted.
—–Douglas Lasken teaches at Ramona Elementary School in Los Angeles