King Features

Sunday, June 7, 1998

Bilingual Educators Guilty of Destroying Bilingual Education

Opponents of California's Proposition 227, the ballot initiative to end bilingual education in the state, painted the measure as the third referendum in the last four years driven by anti-immigrant hysteria. First Proposition 187 tried to get immigrant kids kicked out of school, then Proposition 209 ended affirmative action, and now this.

The measure was approved Tuesday. When it takes effect, students who do not know English get one year to learn. During this period they can't take courses like math or history in their language--such courses will no longer be available. This is termed the "immersion" system. After that one year, even students who did not manage to learn English must take all subjects in English unlesss their parents are savvy enough to get them a waiver for bilingual instruction.

No doubt, xenophobia played a role. Anti-Hispanic sentiment is rampant in California to an extreme unknown in any other state, and voting against bilingual education was a way to express that sentiment.

But there is more to it. While Hispanics in California voted overwhelmingly against Propositions 187 and 209, Tuesday's anti-bilingual education measure won with strong backing from Hispanics. In effect, large numbers of Hispanics turned against a program originally created for the benefit of immigrant children who do not speak English, most of whom speak Spanish. So to blame the end of bilingual education on the anti-Latino factor is simplistic. You can blame it on Latinos, too.

And "blame" is the right word. Proposition 227's passage is not a good thing. Without bilingual education, teenagers who don't speak English will be forced to spend time sitting in classes where they cannot understand the teacher. It is difficult to think of a more pointless academic exercise.

Why then, would Hispanics vote for something like this? Because of the damage wrought by the academics and educrats whose theories underpin bilingual education as malpracticed in California. Bilingual theorists ruined bilingual education.

Reigning bilingual education theory holds that children need to master reading and writing in their native language before moving on to English. In practice, this means that children in California are purposefully held back from learning English as quickly as they can. For instance, a report last year by the Educational Research Cooperative at the University of California, Riverside, concluded that kids who do not speak English need 10 years to achieve native fluency in writing, reading and speaking English. This is absurd. Young children can learn in a year or two. Teenagers take longer, but to say they need ten years is saying that a child who comes to the United States as a freshman needs a decade to graduate from high school. No wonder Hispanic parents are upset. They want their kids to learn English fast.

But the answer is to fix bilingual education, not throw it out altogether. For some students--particularly teenagers, who cannot learn a new language as easily as young children--a bilingual program is a must.

In a more sensible world, one in which bilingual education was not politicized by opponents or proponents, there would not have been a need for Proposition 227.

Bilingual education could have been a system in which teenagers take history or math in their native language while they undergo intensive instruction in English. In this manner, they could keep up with their grade level in academic subjects. After two or three years--not ten--they could be mainstreamed into classes taught in English.

Or it could have been what is termed "two-way bilingual education." Under such a program all students, including those whose primary language is English, take courses in two languages beginning in kindergarten, so that by the time they graduate from high school they are fluent in two languages.

The "two-way" system is an expensive luxury, a nice curriculum to make available in one or two schools in each district, maybe a magnet program to attract parents of all ethnic groups who understand that being bilingual is a great advantage in this increasingly global society. But the former, the traditional bilingual programs for kids just learning English, is no luxury. It is a necessity.

And now, thanks to a bilingual education establishment that mismanaged a good thing, California immigrant parents have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to give their kids the linguistic support they need.