Why a left-of-left liberal wants children educated in English

I AM AN UNREPENTANT left-of-left Democrat. I’ve spent time in jail protesting the treatment of farmworkers, the deportation of Salvadoran refugees and the mistreatment of skid row’s homeless.

Supporting Proposition 227 is the first politically incorrect thing I have been known to do.

As founder and director of Las Familias del Pueblo, I oversee a one-room community center on the edge of Los Angeles’ skid row and the start of the garment district’s sweatshops.

All of our families work hard. Most labor in garment district sweatshops. Others wait on tables, clean downtown offices or sell tamales on street corners. All struggle to house and feed their children on average monthly incomes of $800. Living in cramped one-room apartments, everything they need is something they can’t afford.

Yet it was these impoverished sweatshop workers who courageously set in motion a revolution in California. In February 1996, after years of begging Ninth Street Elementary School to teach their children — many of whom were born in this country — to read and write English, these sweatshop workers pulled their children out of school and began a boycott.

The boycott lasted nearly two weeks and led to Proposition 227 on this June’s ballot. It will eliminate most bilingual programs in California.

The Ninth Street parent boycott was initiated because the school refused to create English-language classes for students requesting them — even though California law required the school to do so. Students continued to have Spanish-language classes through elementary school and were sent to middle school barely reading or writing English.

Like many Latino children, those at Las Familias live in Spanish-speaking homes, watch Spanish-speaking television, play in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods and then study in Spanish-speaking classrooms. With so little exposure to English in the primary grades, few successfully make the transition to English later.

Had the boycott not caught the attention of local and national media, the children would still be in Spanish-language classes.

The Ninth Street school boycott proved emblematic of long-festering concerns by Latino parents throughout Los Angeles and California whose children are being denied a future because they are not learning to read and write English.

In California, it all begins with a home-language survey given to new students to determine if anyone in the home speaks a language other than English. If an elderly grandparent speaks another language at home, the child must take an English language test — even if the child was born here and speaks only English.

Many 4- and 5-year-olds are not very verbal. Since the language test measures only a child’s achievement in English, a child might score low even if English is his or her only language.

Indeed, a 1980 study of several California school districts showed that 40 percent of Latinos designated as limited-English-proficient spoke no Spanish at all.

Once children are assigned to this educational dead end, it is almost impossible to get out. In 1995, when Ninth Street school parents began their collective effort to extricate their children from the so-called bilingual program, just six students at the school were redesignated as proficient in English.

Why? Much of the reason is money.

Bilingual teachers in Los Angeles receive up to $5,000 extra a year, and both the schools and school districts receive hundreds of dollars for children kept in Spanish-language programs.

California schools receive more than $400 million in state and federal funds each year for students designated limited-English-proficient. Since such money is not easily relinquished, students languish in Spanish-language classes.

Unz initiative

Predictably, when Ron Unz came to Las Familias shortly after the boycott to talk about drafting an initiative to end this failed 25-year experiment, we were interested. If it had taken a nationally televised boycott to get 90 children out of Spanish-language classes, then short of an initiative, few others would get out.

Contrary to the opposition’s claims, Proposition 227 does not replace bilingual education with an untried, risky alternative. All other nations in the world use some form of immersion to teach language to immigrant children.

In California, some 140 languages are spoken. But four-fifths of those in native-language classes are Latinos. Other immigrant groups receive intensive English classes similar to those proposed in Proposition 227, and all of them do better academically than Latinos. Among immigrant groups, Latinos score the lowest on tests, have the fewest number admitted to universities and have the highest dropout rate.

Perhaps that’s because Latino children are in programs that purport to teach them English by first teaching them to read and write Spanish for four to seven years. Called “transitional bilingual education,” this system moves children into mainstream English classes only when they test out at grade level in Spanish. Few accomplish that.

Proposition 227 would replace Spanish-language classes with intensive English classes. Most children would remain in these intensive English-language classes for no more than one year. Parents of children requiring additional time or alternative language assistance could apply for a waiver, which would be granted to children older than 10 or who have spent 30 days in an English immersion program.

Most limited-English students begin school in kindergarten or first grade, the easiest age to learn a new language. Since the academic content of those first years is language acquisition, teaching children to read and write English is essential.

Even Proposition 227’s opponents can’t defend the existing state of bilingual education. All insist they are ready to improve it — but not get rid of it. Yet these very politicians and activists have defeated every legislative effort to fix the problem over the past 10 years.

And while Democratic and Republican voters of all ethnicities overwhelmingly support the initiative, their politicians either oppose or duck it. Republicans, wanting to distance themselves from the shameful immigrant policies of the past, are afraid of being labeled anti-immigrant. Democrats, abandoning their traditional support for the poor, have thrown in their lot with the small but powerful monied bilingual interests and the Latino activists within the party.

Strange bedfellows

At the same time, the initiative has made for strange bedfellows. Unz, author of Proposition 227, is a conservative Republican. I am a liberal clergywoman.

And Maria Petra Chaparro is an impoverished garment worker. None of the luxuries and little of the graciousness of life touch her. Making about $800 a month, she has life that is a constant struggle against poverty.

Petra worries whether her daughter Paula is learning the English she needs to have a future in this country. She is hoping that on Tuesday, voters in California will show they care, too.


Alice Callaghan is an Episcopal priest and the founder/director of Las Familias del Pueblo in Los Angeles. She wrote this article for Perspective.

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