BOOGEYMAN is “a frightening imaginary being, often one used as a threat in disciplining children,” according to Webster’s Dictionary.

How do you get a majority of California voters to go along with a proposal that:

  • Bans children under the age of 10 from learning in a language they understand?
  • Invalidates the actions of popular former Gov. Ronald Reagan?
  • Rules out parental and community choice?
  • Takes responsibility away from educators while subjecting them to new legal liabilities?
  • Conflicts with constitutional protections?
  • Produces only costs and no savings?
  • Is publicly opposed by virtually all organizations concerned with education?

Well, if you’re Ron Unz, you treat the voters like children and create a bilingual boogeyman to scare them.

Unz, a wealthy, 36-year-old high school science wizard turned theoretical physicist turned successful software entrepreneur, is determined to make a political comeback after his humiliating loss to incumbent Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican gubernatorial primary.

Unz’s vehicle is his “English for the Children” initiative, slated for the June 1998 California election. The initiative dictates, under penalty of law., a single instructional program—one year of English immersion, followed by transfer to regular classrooms—for teaching all of the state’s 1.4 million students currently listed as having a limited command of English.

How has Unz created the bilingual boogeyman? By blaming bilingual education for the educational plight of the state’s limited-English-proficient students.

In fact, only 411,000 of those students—about three out of 10—are in bilingual classrooms where teachers instruct them through both English and their native language. Seventy percent of all California limited-English-proficient students are taught by teachers in English only.

Yet, according to Unz, the bilingual boogeyman is to blame for California’s unacceptably high Latino student dropout rate. In fact, most Latino students have never received instruction in Spanish. If they had, dropout rates would likely be lower.

In 1967, Reagan signed legislation repealing a 95-year-old provision in the state education code that required that all classroom instruction be conducted in English. The legislation also authorized local school boards “to determine when and under what circumstances instruction may be given bilingually.”

The reason Reagan and state lawmakers scrapped California’s English-only school mandate was simple: English-only instruction didn’t work for non-English-speaking students. At that time, three of every four Latino students in California dropped out before high school graduation, and only half of the state’s Mexican-American adults between the ages of 18 to 24 had even completed the eighth grade.

Today the numbers are reversed: Nearly three out of four Latino students graduate from high school. Progress, yes. Enough progress, no.

Unz’s last fictional charge against the bilingual boogeyman is that Latino parents want English-only instruction for their children. He cites an isolated protest last year by several dozen parents at a single school in Los Angeles as proof that Latino parents oppose bilingual education.

Yet, a Feb. 9 poll commissioned by L.A. Spanish-language daily newspaper La Opinion and Spanish-language TV station KVEA (Channel 52) found “that over 88 percent of Latino parents who have children in bilingual education programs feel that such programs are good for their children.”

Clearly, Latino parents aren’t afraid of the bilingual boogeyman. Nor should any California voter fear the imaginary monster Unz has created.

James J Lyons serves as the executive director and legislative and policy counsel of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

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