Contra Costa Times
Friday, May 29, 1998
THERE'S A SIMPLE AXIOM that one should "never change a winning game plan and always change a losing one." California's bilingual education program, as it's currently structured, is a proven losing game plan. It's time for Californians to step in and do what their elected officials and educators have failed to do -- try another plan.
Last year, only about 7 percent of limited-English speaking students learned enough English to advance into regular classes. Most students in bilingual classes stay there for the first four to seven years of school, segregated from the rest of their classmates. The failure to learn English well enough, soon enough often results in poor school performance and a high dropout rate.
In fact, Latino immigrant children, who are by far the largest group of students in bilingual classes, have the lowest test scores and highest dropout rates of any immigrant group.
It is unconscionable to allow such a failure to continue, especially with so many non-English speaking people moving to California. Unless children learn English, they cannot pursue higher education, find decent jobs or fully participate in society.
The state Legislature realized after more than a decade of failed bilingual education that it was not working. That's why it allowed the Bilingual-Bicultural Education Act to expire in 1987. But it offered no alternative. In the past 11 years, little has changed, largely because school administrators at the state and local level continued business as usual.
Most bilingual programs still teach all academic subjects in a child's' native language. Students receive little English instruction nor do they get much exposure to English-speaking children, even in kindergarten and first grade. This is a time when children can more easily learn enough English to feel comfortable with English-speakers of the same age.
The true shame here is that efforts to motivate school officials to improve instruction for children with limited English proficiency have failed. And the Legislature, once again, has not acted in a timely manner on proposed reforms.
As happens all too often in California, failure of our elected officials or administrators to adequately address a major social problem leads to use of the ballot initiative. The problem with initiatives is that they are blunt instruments not well suited for dealing with complex public policy issues. That's the case with Prop. 227. It is a long way from what is needed to fully meet the needs of all children with limited English ability, but it is considerably better than doing nothing.
The measure would sharply reduce the use of bilingual education, where students are taught primarily in their native language. Instead, Prop. 227 would require school districts to teach children with limited English ability in special classes that are taught nearly all in English. It would shorten the time most students would stay in special classes -- generally one school year, although it could be longer if needed.
While Prop. 227 would reduce the use of bilingual classes, it would not eliminate them. If parents request bilingual classes and their child is 10 or older or if the child has been in a class using English for at least 30 days and educators agree learning in another language would be better, then the child could be placed in a bilingual class.
If there are 20 or more students in a given grade level who qualify for bilingual education, then the school would have to provide it. If there are fewer than 20, then the school must allow the students to go to a school that has bilingual classes.
Also, Prop. 227 would provide $50 million a year for English classes for adults who promise to tutor students who have limited English proficiency.
Unlike most ballot initiatives, Prop. 227 has a provision that would allow the Legislature to modify it with a two-thirds vote of each house and the governor's signature.
Despite these provisions for exceptions and revisions, Prop. 227 is not as flexible as we would like. The measure would be much stronger if it provided for a longer transition time to regular classes in English, especially for students in middle and high school. And it should offer local school districts more leeway in designing classes for limited-English children.
Still, Prop. 227 is no more rigid in design than the current system is in practice. Schools rely far too much on long-term bilingual education, especially in lower grades. The current system also does not give local districts enough discretion.
We should not have to use ballot initiatives to enact educational reforms. That is the job of educators and the Legislature. But after more than two decades of paralysis on their part, it's time for the people to act at the polls.
Voters should ask themselves this fundamental question: Will most of the state's children with limited English proficiency be better off with Prop. 227 than they are today? We believe the answer is yes.