Teachers Try to Bring Back Bilingual Education in California

Despite its success in improving test scores among California's Hispanic student population, a movement is afoot to subvert a 1998 voter referendum that virtually ended bilingual education in California's public schools.

Proponents of Prop. 227, which took Spanish-speaking children out of segregated classrooms and into a structured "immersion" environment where classes are only taught in English, say bilingual teachers are upending the program.

Under current law, parents of bilingual students can request special waivers to place their children in the few bilingual programs left in the state.

Now, a state education panel has issued a proposal for new regulations that would allow teachers to approve those waivers, bypassing parental consent.

Critics call it a back-door effort by teachers to funnel thousands of children — and state dollars — back into now-dormant bilingual education programs.

"Under the proposed regulations, bilingual teachers can apply for waivers; despite the wishes of the parents," said Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who authored the controversial referendum. "What they are proposing is to nullify the core provisions of Proposition 227 and effectively restore Spanish-only instruction in California schools."

Gov. Gray Davis opposed Prop. 227 when it was up for a vote, but has since vowed to uphold the law. But Unz said Davis' appointed officers are doing the opposite.

In an e-mail to supporters last week, Unz said Davis will have to "cut loose" the "renegades" in his administration that are cow-towing to the pro-bilingual forces or risk being seen as reneging on his promises.

But Joe Mockler, executive director of the State Board of Education, said Unz and Prop. 227 supporters need not fear an erosion of parental authority.

"If a school determines the need for that waiver and they initiate that waiver, than the parents have to be absolutely guaranteed that they're told that they have the right, not the school, to say yes or no to that waiver," Mockler said.

Unz said the bilingual education system in California was responsible for trapping thousands of immigrant children in a segregated environment for years before they were proficient in English and ready to learn in regular classrooms. As a result, he charges, Hispanic children continually trailed their non-Hispanic counterparts in state test scores.

According to state test scores today, the percentage of Hispanic students with reading scores above the 50th percentile increased from 21 percent in 1998 to 35 percent in 2001. The percentage of Hispanics with math test scores above the 50th percentile increased from 27 percent in 1998 to 46 percent in 2001.

"There is no question that test scores have gone way up," said Michael Barone, syndicated columnist and author of The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again. "I think that given the big increases in test scores, any policy maker should conclude that this has led to significant gains for Hispanic students."

In 2001, 42 percent of the state's 6 million students were Hispanic.