As the old adage goes, “There are three kinds of lies — lies, damn lies and statistics.” Nowhere is this more true than in the wild world of California initiative politics. Spinning “official data” to make a campaign claim seem credible has become high art in initiative campaigns. Sometimes, however, that spin is downright misleading.
Consider the case of the now famous “95 percent failure” claim being spun by backers of the anti-bilingual education initiative sponsored by Republican millionaire Ron Unz. Here are two media bites typical of those being spun every day out of the Unz campaign:
“As one might expect, the results of such an approach to English instruction are utterly dismal. Of the 1.3 million California schoolchildren — a quarter of our state’s total public school enrollment — who begin each year classified as not knowing English, only about 5 percent learn English by year’s end, implying an annual failure rate of 95 percent for existing programs.”
— Ron Unz, writing in the Los Angeles Times
“Only 5 percent of the children in these bilingual programs are mainstreamed every year — a 95-percent failure rate.”
— Assemblyman Tom McClintock, writing in the Long Beach Press Telegram. The message here is clear — bilingual classes are failing 95 percent of the students who are in them, putting kids in English-only classrooms is the only way to go, and anyone who thinks otherwise must be crazy.
As campaign sound bites go, the Unz “95-percent failure” attack is a strong one. It is clear, it is emotional and it has been repeated over and over again daily for months. Respected publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Economist and the Washington Post, have all dutifully repeated the claim without examination. There is one big problem, though — the charge just isn’t true.
The original source of the Unz/McClintock claim is the spring 1997 Language Census conducted by the Educational Demographics Unit of the California Department of Education. The census measured the number of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students officially reclassified by their school districts as fluent in English. According to the department’s statistics, there are just under 1.4 million students officially classified as LEP in California. Last year, according to the department, 6.5 percent of all LEP students were reclassified as being full English proficient.
What do all these numbers mean? They means that the Unz/McClintock claim of “95-percent failure” is extremely misleading in at least two different ways.
First, the Unz campaign uses these statistics as though they refer to just children in bilingual classes. In fact, only a third of these LEP students are in bilingual classrooms. The other two-thirds are being taught in English-language classrooms, where Unz thinks we should put all kids.
If we are being asked to eliminate one way of teaching children (bilingual) in favor of moving almost all kids into another (English-only), isn’t the real question which approach works better? The numbers Unz cites don’t tell us anything about the correct answer to that question.
Second, counting the number of LEP students who are annually reclassified as fluent is a lousy measure of how many kids have actually learned English. Lots of children who are classified as LEP speak English. My own kids, Elly and Miguel, who came here from Bolivia speaking no English, have been fluent for years, yet both are still classified as LEP. Why? Because a lot of school principals never get around to filling out the bureaucratic paperwork to officially reclassify kids. Is this really the kind of evidence on which we should base a massive change in policy that will affect hundreds of thousands of kids every year?
Even Unz agrees that his 95-percent failure claim is based on goofy data. In a public e-mail exchange posted in full on The Democracy Center’s Web site (WWW.democracyctr.org/diaFall1997/unzexchange.html), Unz writes, “The classification methodology used to decide whether children know English or not (i.e. are LEP) is ridiculously stupid and inaccurate . . . perhaps children in ‘bilingual’ programs are reclassified more quickly than children in non-bilingual programs, perhaps not — nobody knows!”
So, here is the obvious question: If Unz agrees that the source of his claim is so “ridiculously stupid and inaccurate,” why are he and his campaign still using it every day? Either the Unz campaign doesn’t understand the facts or it is deliberately misleading the public because it makes a great campaign spin. In either case, it is a classic example of how we should not be making important state policy.
As parents, figuring out how best to help our children learn English was one of the most complicated decisions my wife and I have had to make. We certainly don’t need Unz making that challenge more difficult by limiting our choices on the basis of fake “facts.” And all of us as voters can do without campaign tactics that use those same fake “facts” to push our emotional buttons. People who would hold themselves out as our leaders owe us better than that.
Jim Shultz is the executive director of The Democracy Center in San Francisco and the author of “The Initiative Cookbook — Recipes and Stories from California’s Ballot Wars.”