Debate Over Bilingual Education Rages

The last word on bilingual education didn’t come with California’s Proposition 227 – and it won’t necessarily be in English.

From Massachusetts to Colorado, and even in the Golden State, the debate over whether public school students ought to be taught in English or their native tongues is raging as hot as ever.

Massachusetts residents will likely vote in November on whether or not they want to make English mandatory in all public school classrooms. In Colorado, there’s also a movement afoot to force a referendum on whether or not immigrant children entering American schools should be "immersed" in English courses.

But in California, where English-only activists won their first and most lauded victory, English immersion isn’t completely safe. The state Board of Education wants to circumvent the law by allowing teachers – not just parents – to apply for waivers that let students bypass the Proposition 227 rules.

Immersion supporters say the intent is not to shut out non-English-speaking immigrants, but to make sure they are included in the culture of the United States. It’s also, they say, to make sure those children get the same quality education as others instead of being pigeon-holed into undemanding native-language classes that end up stunting their learning.

"The ‘transitional’ native-language classes used in Massachusetts have been holding back children for too many years," the Boston Herald said in an August 2001 editorial. "It is high time to scrap them and move away from a system that has consigned too many to second-class citizenship."

But English-only opponents like Delia Pompa, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, say they instead support compromises that let children move into English-only classes at their own pace.

"It sounds like a silver bullet to people: Everyone should learn English," she said from her Washington, D.C., office. "Of course we should all learn English, everyone agrees with that, but phrasing it that way plays to an emotional chord in people … and is based on scare tactics."

Leading the anti-bilingual crusade again is California millionaire Ron Unz, who masterminded the success of 1998’s Proposition 227, which required English-only education in California, and of a similar initiative, called Proposition 203, in Arizona in 2000. He confidently predicted that his group, English for the Children, would notch up dos more wins this year.

"We’re getting rid of bilingual education in those two states," Unz said in a telephone interview from his Palo Alto, Calif., office.

As for the proposed California Board of Education regulations, Unz said the board and California Gov. Gray Davis are "caving in" to bilingual activists. He's lobbying to kill the board's propositions in the water.

And Unz said recent statistics from the California Department of Education prove it will be a good thing. The percentage of Hispanic students scoring above the 50th percentile on standardized state reading tests rose from 21 percent in 1998 to 35 percent in 2001. The percentage of Hispanic students scoring above the 50th percentile on state math tests went from 27 percent in 1998 to a 46 percent in 2001.

"It’s a pretty striking comparison," Unz said. "When the test scores of immigrant children rises (more than they have) in 30 years, I think that’s a pretty remarkable achievement."

Critics of English immersion aren’t so sure.

"Children are individuals, communities have individual needs," Pompa said. "You can’t put in place a program with rigid timelines that say, 'You will learn English in one year.' It’s an approach that goes against the whole nature of the type of education we have in the U.S., which is local control."

Pompa and other bilingual boosters say that Unz isn’t showing all the numbers when he says the post-Proposition 227 statistics back the English immersion. Under the program, non-English speakers are given one year to learn English before being moved into fully English classes.

Unz bragged that test scores have improved since 227, but Pompa said the percentage of Hispanic children sent on to fully English classes was pretty much the same in 2001 as it was in 1998 – 25 percent of the total state student body as opposed to 24.6 percent in 1998. That, Pompa said, means that the improvements can’t be explained away by Proposition 227.

"California went through several other initiatives at the same time as Mr. Unz’s, including a focus in terms of instruction and much more stringent requirements for teachers," she said.

Unz said the fight’s not over, even if he has to re-fight the battle where it first began while taking on new fronts farther afield.

"(We’re not going to let the state board in California) turn the clock back and restore the system in California prior to Prop. 227," he said. "(And) in the rest of the country, there’s really been no change," he said.