RON UNZ IS EAGER to portray Proposition 227, his plan to dismantle bilingual education, as a “pro-immigrant” measure. He’s so eager, in fact, that he repudiated an endorsement by Pete Wilson, suggesting the governor’s immigrant-bashing image might “discredit” the initiative.

It’s a clever strategy. Unz has avoided the explicit nativism of earlier English-only campaigns. No more attacks on bilingualism as un-American; no more ties to the immigration-restriction lobby. Thus, he has immunized Proposition 227 against the charge of ethnic bigotry.

Still, the initiative’s appeal is a puzzle. If its lead in the polls reveals widespread interest in improving the education of English learners, that would be welcome news. But if so:

. Why are Californians so ready to impose — against the overwhelming advice of those who actually work in classrooms — an untested approach for teaching English, one that would be virtually impossible to fix if it failed?

. Why are Californians so enthusiastic for a top-down mandate that would sacrifice all local control and most parental choice, two of our most cherished principles?

. Why are Californians so willing to believe the worst about bilingual education and educators, on the flimsiest of evidence?

To understand the causes, we need to look more closely at the symptoms.

Buying the big lie

“Bilingual education in California has been a serious failure,” says Gov. Wilson. He’s seconded by the four major candidates seeking to succeed him, along with virtually every pundit and editorial board in the state — though most oppose 227. This dire assessment seems to have entered the conventional wisdom. Yet it’s unsupported by research or logic.

Ron Unz claims “the current system” has a “95 percent failure rate,” based loosely on the proportion of English learners who are not “redesignated” as fluent in English each year. That’s a nonsensical standard. Jaime Escalante, the legendary math teacher who joined Unz’s campaign, admits his own son needed three years to learn English.

What truly defies rationality, however, is blaming students’ “failure” on bilingual education, a program available to fewer than a third of English learners in California. It would be far more plausible to place the blame on the shortage of such classrooms.

And forget the need for experienced teachers, strong principals, adequate resources and a challenging curriculum — factors associated with success for English-speaking students. No one is clamoring to tackle these issues with a statewide ballot initiative. The critics assume that, for the “problem” kids, language is all that really matters.

Rejecting the research

Bilingual education isn’t teaching English fast enough, the governor insists. But again, there is simply no evidence to confirm this gut feeling — and a great deal to contradict it.

A major federal study released in 1991 found that well-designed, well-implemented bilingual programs do not slow down English learners; on the contrary, they enable children to “catch up to their English-proficient peers,” says the study’s author, David Ramirez of California State University-Long Beach.

Research shows that such results take time. English learners in San Francisco needed 4.8 years of special programs, on average, to master English, according to Ramirez’s latest study, released this month. But after doing so, they equaled or surpassed the academic performance of all other groups, including native English speakers.

Unz doesn’t argue with the research, because he can’t. Instead, he ridicules it as “academic dogma” or “utter garbage.”

What’s remarkable here is not one politician’s descent into demagoguery. It’s how otherwise responsible Californians have failed to challenge it. Indeed, many have joined in bashing the science.

A frequent complaint is that researchers study only the “good” programs and thus cannot demonstrate that bilingual education works in all schools. In other words, the critics demand proof that students will do well even when taught poorly — a standard of success no other pedagogy is asked to meet.

By contrast, “sheltered English immersion,” the one-size-fits-all method that Proposition 227 would impose, has met with almost no scrutiny. Unz promises it will teach all children English in 180 school days. There is no evidence this has ever worked before. In the 1991 Ramirez study, only 4 percent of students reached English fluency after a year in all-English programs; after four years, a third were still limited in English.

To counter such findings, Unz points to Gloria Matta Tuchman, co-sponsor of the 227 campaign, who boasts of overnight success in her first-grade immersion classroom. Yet, according to the Santa Ana school district, not a single one of Tuchman’s students became fluent in English last year.

Arguing by anecdote

Unz also relies on anecdote to argue that Latinos don’t want bilingual education. He cites a 1996 protest at the Ninth Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, where a group of immigrant parents pulled their children out of school, allegedly because they were denied all-English instruction. Whether it happened this way or not — the facts are disputed — this incident involved a minority of parents in a single school out of 8,000 schools in California. Yet massive news coverage of this single event implies a groundswell of Latino opposition to bilingual education.

Meanwhile, parent protests against decisions to drop native-language programs, including a recent school boycott in Santa Barbara, have been virtually ignored by journalists.

To be sure, immigrants want their kids to learn English without undue delay, and some appear ready to buy 227 when it’s sold as a way to speed up the process. Yet the same polls show strong parental support for bilingual instruction — 88 percent in a recent survey by Spanish-language media in Los Angeles.

Schools are struggling to keep up with parental demand — not for all-English instruction, but for bilingual programs. The California Department of Education receives numerous complaints each year from parents unable to get their children into bilingual classrooms, says state regulator Norman Gold, who adds, “Records going back over more than a decade show that there have been no complaints alleging that parents have been unable to remove their children from bilingual instruction.”

Slandering the teachers

One of the saddest features of this debate has been the ad hominem assault on bilingual educators. Unz claims you can’t believe anything they say because their “real goal is to keep the hundreds of millions of dollars going into (their) program.”

First, consider the assumption that bilingual education is terribly expensive. California gives school districts about $250 per limited-English student to defray the added costs of teaching them. That money is provided regardless of the type of instruction; less than 30 percent of it reaches bilingual classrooms. While English learners make up 25 percent of California students, bilingual education accounts for only 0.5 percent of state expenditures on the public schools.

Hardly a gravy train — contrary to the media stereotype. Describing the bilingual education “industry,” the Los Angeles Times recently cited the many textbook publishers who exhibited their wares at a bilingual teachers’ conference. Somehow it escaped the reporters’ notice that English-only teachers use textbooks, too.

The insinuations don’t stop there. Bilingual educators are portrayed as greedy and less dedicated to their students; their field is vilified as a “Hispanic jobs program.” As it happens, a majority of California’s bilingual teachers come from English-language backgrounds. You wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers.

Unspoken assumptions

Throughout the campaign, evidence that favors bilingual education has been belittled or ignored, while negative portrayals are accepted without question. What’s driving this strange debate in which normal standards of proof no longer apply?

Clearly there are unspoken assumptions here. We debate the language of instruction because political realities forbid a comprehensive effort to improve schooling for poor children, whatever language they happen to speak. It’s easier and less expensive to attack a scapegoat such as bilingual education.

We pay lip service to the value of foreign-language skills in today’s global economy, while devaluing — perhaps even fearing — these same skills at home. Ethnic languages can be divisive, the thinking goes. Better not encourage them with government subsidies.

We talk about raising academic standards for all, while expecting very little of language-minority students, except that they learn English. There’s a suspicion that these kids can’t even manage that, unless we suppress their native tongues.

Most Californians who are inclined to eliminate bilingual education have no mean-spirited intent. Nevertheless, they would risk the life chances of 1.5 million children on a radical, unproven alternative. They should ask themselves in good conscience: Would I vote yes on 227 if my own child were the guinea pig?

James Crawford is author of “Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of English Only” and other books on education and language policy. He wrote this article for Perspective.

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