Who killed bilingual education?

Pro and con arguments concerning what led to the end of bilingual education in California

Northridge, Calif.—Gregory Rodriguez, a research fellow at the conservative Pepperdine Institute and a relative newcomer to Chicano/Latino politics, bases his April 20 “English Lesson in California” on numerous untested assumptions. First, he says that the powerhouse behind the campaign for bilingual education has been the California Association of Bilingual Educators (CABE) and that behind it is “California’s powerful teachers’ unions–one of the Democratic Party’s strongest constituencies,” which have “made the issue a mainstay of that state’s liberal agenda”

Although CABE draws thousands to its annual convention, that is not the same as wielding political clout, and among Latino organizations CABE is not regarded as a powerhouse. Teachers’ unions of course are, but until recently they gave Latino issues low priority, largely because of their ethnic composition: In the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District, 67 percent of the students are Latino, but only about 13 percent of the teachers are. As for their liberality, a near-majority in the union voted to eliminate bilingual education and a substantial number supported Propositions 187 and 209.

Second, Rodriguez asserts that bilingual education is the mainstay of the Latino civil rights movement and that “bilingual lobbyists were more concerned with preserving the program than making sure it was benefiting the children it served.” That is an awful assumption. We who support bilingual education do so because we believe it helps children. Moreover, there has been considerable debate over pedagogy, as well as theory, among bilingual supporters. Rodriguez never went through the agonizing pain as a child of having to sit through English-only sessions and being pinched by teachers for peaking Spanish. I am a survivor of the immersion method, and I consider it only logical to use knowledge acquired in one language to supplement learning in another. Proposition 227 is a horror story. It makes snitches out of teachers. If a teacher continues to use a foreign language for instruction, he or she can be prosecuted and must pay the cost of litigation.

The third assumption of the man from Pepperdine is that “in California, even bilingual-education supporters don’t think the current system is working.” We must ask, In California is any kind of education working for poor and working-class students? The answer is no. In the fifties, California was second in the nation in per student spending; today it ranks fiftieth–below Mississippi. Yet California ranks thirteenth in per capita income, while Mississippi ranks fiftieth. When bilingual education, like mainstream education, is funded properly and the teachers are good, the outcome is excellent.

Fourth, Rodriguez says the Republican Party as well as supporters of Props 187 and 209 are not enthusiastically backing 227, the “English for the Children” initiative. This is nonsense. Because immigrant-bashing has produced a backlash among Latino voters, the nativists have simply become more covert. Ron Unz, the man behind the proposition, is a right-wing multimillionaire who dreams of running for governor. He is no dummy. He knows there is a strong core constituency of anti-immigrant, anti-minority voters in California. He knows Pete Wilson’s political career was almost dead until Prop 187 resurrected it. Unz contributes to Heritage Foundation Policy Review; he opposes affirmative action, abortion and welfare.

But Rodriguez ignores both the politics and the history of this issue. In 1986 California voters passed Proposition 63 by a 3-to-1 margin, making English the official language. The Prop 63 campaign spent more than $ 1 million, $ 500,000 of it from US English, the largest English-first organization in the country. US English directs and funds other groups, including the Learning English Advocates Drive, or LEAD, which has actively opposed bilingual education in the LA schools and teachers union. It stirs up anti-immigrant hysteria and its members are largely Republican. Another group, Americans Against Illegal Immigration, is tied to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which was active in the campaign for Prop 187–indeed, the battle over Prop 187 became a Republican versus Democratic Party issue.

In 1993 the English-only movement reported total contributions of more than $ 6 million, some of which came from the right-wing Laurel Foundation and the Pioneer Fund. These and other conservative foundations and think tanks–like the Center for Equal Opportunity, funded by the reactionary Olin Foundation–played a prominent role in the genesis of Prop 209.

Finally, Rodriguez argues that Latino voters support Unz’s initiative. Lest we forget, three months before the vote on Prop 187, polls showed nearly 60 percent of Latinos favoring it. In the end some 80 percent voted against it. Latino voters apparently felt proponents had racialized the issues. Evidently this time they saw the connection between 187,209, 227 and the ideologues, arch-conservative think tanks and foundations that have made them all part of a single political agenda.

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