Wednesdays are my special days. Bright and early I leave with my children Elly and Miguel and we catch the bus to go to their school. On other days I drop them off and head into downtown San Francisco for work – but Wednesdays are different. For five years I have spent nearly every Wednesday morning volunteering in the Spanish bilingual classrooms of my son and daughter at Alvarado Elementary School in Noe Valley in the city. I’ve done everything from mix paint to help children master their first English reading assignments. Most of these kids I have known since kindergarten and first grade, when they knew almost no English.
When Elly and Miguel started out they didn’t know a word of English either. Both had been students my wife and I taught when we served as volunteer teachers in a Bolivian orphanage. They were the surprise son and daughter we fell in love with and adopted. For us, enrolling our children in bilingual education was a deliberate and careful choice. We wanted our children to learn English, but cushioned along the way by being in classrooms where they could understand and be understood in their native Spanish. For us, as it has been for many other families, it was the right choice.
Today a new anti-bilingual initiative, being bankrolled by GOP millionaire Ron Unz, would take that parent choice and tear it to shreds. It would have forced our children, against our wishes, into classrooms where they wouldn’t have understand a word. To be clear, there is plenty of room for reforming bilingual education in California and if that is what the Unz initiative did I would endorse it. Unfortunately reforming bilingual classes is not what the initiative is about. What it actually sets out to do is make it difficult if not impossible for families to get their kids into bilingual classes.
We all need to look beyond the campaign rhetoric to what the initiative would actually do. The initiative targets children who are younger than 10 and not already fluent in English. Unz would require that these children be put into classrooms where all the materials and instruction would only be in English. It wouldn’t matter what their parents want; it would be the law. The only way that parents would be able to transfer their children into a bilingual classroom would be to put them through a cruel and foolish “lab test” at the start of each school year.
The Unz “lab test” works like this. Parents could request a transfer into bilingual education only after their children have been forced to spend a full thirty days in these English-only classrooms. To get a transfer parents would have to get the teacher, the principal, and the district superintendent of schools to all agree, on a case by case basis. It would turn the start of school next year into a bureaucratic nightmare. Imagine thousands of parents trying to get the school bureaucracy to change their child’s classroom, assuming of course that there is still a bilingual classroom left. The initiative would require children to repeat this English-only experiment every school year, no matter how strongly parents object.
As a father I know what every parent knows, that the start of the school year is crucial for a child. The last thing we need is for our kids to be put through this kind of confusion just when what they really need is to settle into a familiar routine. The Unz initiative would take every parent’s September nightmare and make it state law. The initiative’s backers may claim that they are for parent choice, but this doesn’t look much like parent choice to me. When you look beyond his rhetoric at the actual law Mr. Unz wrote it becomes clear that he didn’t think very hard about how it would actually work with real kids in real schools.
The fact is that all children are different and bilingual education is right for some and not for others. It is precisely because the case for bilingual education is not black and white that I think parent choice is so fundamental. As a father what I see here is one man with a big checkbook trying to impose his rigid “one size fits all” ideology on thousands of families who want nothing to do with it. With all due respect, if I want Mr. Unz’s advice about what to put in Elly’s and Miguel’s lunch, what time to put them to bed, or how to educate them, my wife and I will give him a call. In the meantime, I hope for the sake of all our kids that voters take a good close look at Mr. Unz law and think about what it really means.
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”. He is on the world wide web at www.democracyctr.org.