Sunday, April 26, 1998
Bilingual Education Debate Hits
Both friends and foes of Proposition 227 – the bilingual education measure on the June 2 ballot – can agree on one thing: Students should learn to speak English. That may be the only common ground the two sides will share at a forum Monday night at Porterville College Theatre.
Stephen Krashen, a University of Southern California professor who has written more than 160 articles and books on bilingual education, will be there to oppose the measure he calls a disaster in the making.
Proposition 227 supporters, who argue that rapid immersion in English-only classes is good for both the student and the nation, will be there to disagree.
It is one of the hottest issues on the ballot, one some political observers say is dry kindling that will sweep across the nation much as Proposition 13, the property tax initiative, did in the 1970s.
If passed, Proposition 227, authored by Silicon Valley millionaire and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, would put California's 1 million-plus limited-English speaking students in English-only classes after one year of English-language training.
Krashen, who spoke last week in Fresno, believes that it takes many years of bilingual education before a student with little or no English skills can succeed academically.
Jim Edwards, director of special services at Porterville Public Schools, may not go that far, but he opposes the initiative, too. "One year is not quite enough," he said. Ideally, the 1,300 students in his program should be immersed in the English-only classes by the end of three years, listings he said.
Much sooner is better, argues Jack Fiorentino of the San Joaquin Valley Taxpayers Association. "It's a complete failure," Fiorentino said of bilingual education. "It hasn't done anything for the kids. The faster you put them in English classes, the better off they're going to be. Speech experts will tell you the best way to learn English is to start students off in English as soon as possible."
Tulare County had 19,442 limited-English proficient students in 1996, according to state figures. While not all of those students were enrolled in bilingual education programs, that is a 25 percent increase from 1992.
Those students spoke more than a dozen languages, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Hmong, Cantonese, Filipino, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, Punjabi, Farsi, Arabic and Mien, said Pansy Ceballos, instructional consultant at the Tulare County Office of Education.
"It would be a shame to do away with the program" before looking at the array of bilingual education classes offered, she said. If the initiative succeeds, then "I think we're probably wasting a lot of talented teachers who have gone to school to learn to provide bilingual education, as well as the talented students who would benefit our society," Ceballos said.
Win or lose, the measure's national implications are becoming more clear.
"This initiative may not impact Kansas, but it will have an effect on any state with a large immigrant population," said Tim Schultz, a spokesman for U.S. English, an English-only advocacy group. "It's already impacted other states like Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, where people are challenging the bilingual education power structure and winning."
Statewide polls show about 60 percent of voters support it, including about half of the Hispanic voters polled. Republican Gov. Wilson has not yet taken a position on the issue, but spokesman Sean Walsh said Wilson is impressed by the success of language immersion techniques used in Israel.
"Whether a 70-year-old from Moscow or a 4-year-old from Paris, they seem to integrate into Israeli society by using total immersion," Walsh said. "The concept does seem to have some merit to Wilson, but he needs to study it in greater detail."
Currently, students with limited familiarity with English are tested in their native language and in English. The schools assess their abilities, then place them in programs that teach in both their native language and in English. The level of English instruction is gradually increased.
Backers of the initiative say that procedure takes too long and produces children who are unable to cope in a linguistic environment dominated by English.
"What we call bilingual education has never worked anywhere in America on a large scale in 30 years of effort. Never," Unz said. Placing English learners in an English-transition class for up to a year is called "sheltered immersion." The class can be composed of various age groups. After that, the students would be placed in mainstream classes. English tutoring also would be available - the initiative provides $50 million annually for a decade to pay for it.
Parents who want their children exempted from Proposition 227 would be required to submit their requests in writing, renewed annually.
"The goal is to give them special help and try to teach English as quickly as possible. We believe that could take place within a year," Schultz said.
But opponents say Proposition 227 would disrupt the children's education.
"It would, for the first time since the 1970s, mandate a single program for the entire state, taking kids out of their regular classrooms and creating a single classroom," said Holli Thier, a spokeswoman for the opponents. "There would be kids of all different backgrounds and ages, and they would have 180 days – the length of a school year – to learn English. How in the world is a teacher going to teach math to a classroom of fifth-graders and kindergartners? You can't do it."
Bilingual education programs exist nationwide, with particular concentrations of non-English-speaking children in Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois. But California's public schools account for more than half of the country's estimated 2.44 million non-fluent students.
If the initiative is approved, Unz says his next
stop will be Washington, D.C.