THE Ninth Street School in Los Angeles’ garment district uses bilingual education to teach its Latino students. But when parents complained that the program was not teaching English, instead using Spanish, administrators ignored them.
Desperate, these parents did the only thing they could think of. They staged a two-week boycott of the school until administrators agreed to finally teach their children English.
It was this incredible boycott that motivated software entrepreneur Ron Unz to launch his “English for the Children” ballot initiative. This initiative, which will appear on California’s June primary ballot, forces schools to teach all language-minority children in specially designed English programs, unless their parents specifically request otherwise.
Education policy is often a land where up is down, black is white and right is wrong. Nothing illustrates this “Alice in Wonderland” situation more than bilingual education. This program is based on the claim that in order to learn English, children must be taught their native language, which for most language-minority students is Spanish.
Supporters of bilingual education tell us that children must first develop their native language before they can fully learn a new one, that adults learn languages easier and faster than children. This theory calls for children to be taught in their native language for five to seven years before they learn English. We are told that children will fall behind if they are not taught in their native language. Educators know there are other methods of teaching children English, like English as a second language programs, but we are told that bilingual education is better.
The research, however, does not support any of these claims. Neuroscientists have very clearly established what common sense already tells us—that there is an optimum time for the brain to learn language, and that time is in early childhood. The National Academy of Sciences, in a comprehensive 1997 report, found that after 30 years of research we still don’t know if even the best bilingual programs are helping or hurting students. Children in ESL classes are taught in English-only are not routinely held back, but Latino students, the one group that gets bilingual education, have three times the dropout rate of non-Latino whites.
Parents like Emerita Carrillo don’t need a study to tell them that bilingual education is a failure. Her two young children were falling behind in their California school, and they did not seem to be learning English.
When she visited the school, she discovered that they had been placed in a bilingual education classroom, segregated from the non-Latino children and taught almost entirely in Spanish. Her complaints to the school fell on the deaf ears of educators brainwashed into believing that bilingual education is best. It took her two years to get her children out of the program.
Carrillo’s story is, sadly, not uncommon. Latino parents all over the country are facing the same situation. They are asking themselves and educators: If learning English is good enough for the Chinese and Russian kids, why isn’t it for Latinos?
The answer is politics. Bilingual education’s main supporters are educators and ethnic activists who view it as a jobs and political patronage program. They value maintaining Spanish above teaching English.
Given that the California Legislature has been unable to deal with this issue in the past 10 years, Unz’s initiative may be the only way out for parents desperate to improve the education of their children.
Jorge Amselle is the communications director at the Center for Equal Opportunity and the project director for the center’s bilingual education programs.