Los Angeles Times
Thursday, October 15, 1998
. . . but the Measure's Flaws Make It Hard to Implement
Bilingual ed: Contrary to what proponents believe, there's no
plot to undermine the law, just a lot of difficulties.
By HARRY P. PACHON
School districts around the state are delaying implementation of Proposition
227, the measure that mandates English-only instruction in California public
schools, despite a provision that bilingual education be generally prohibited
within 90 days of passage. While proponents of Proposition 227, notably
author Ron Unz, see nefarious motives behind such delays, it is the poor
conception and unrealistic expectations inherent in the measure that have
given rise to the problems in its implementation, just as opponents predicted
during the election campaign.
For one thing, the proposition requires "predominant
English instruction" in the classroom. But it fails to specify what
this means. Is it 60%? Or 70%? Or 90%? Unz and other backers argue that
95% or higher should be the standard. But the law is unclear on the matter,
and uncertainty on this point alone is enough to make implementation difficult.
Then there are teaching materials. Teachers
tell me that some school districts had already ordered new bilingual texts
for this school year. Because of Proposition 227, they are unable to use
them. But fiscal shortfalls prevent the purchase of a new batch of predominantly
English-language texts this year. To put the lie to the perception that
educators are sabotaging the implementation of 227, some teachers have
resorted to dipping into their own pockets to buy instructional materials
for students. Others are proceeding without texts.
More important, school administrators tell
me that teachers who were familiar with bilingual instructional methods
lack training or familiarity with an all-English way of teaching for non-English
speaking children. The short time frame envisioned in the measure made
no provision for teacher retraining.
Even so, many teachers afraid of lawsuits
have gone ahead using only English in their classrooms. As Proposition
227 opponents had argued, non-English speaking children naturally don't
understand what's going on, and the teachers must turn to bilingual aides
to translate. While such aides do a fine job of assisting teachers, this
arrangement raises serious questions: What is being lost in having the
teacher lose direct contact with students? Does this mean teachers aren't
making a good-faith effort to implement Proposition 227?
With such problems, it comes as no surprise
that some school districts across the state are asking for blanket waivers
from Proposition 227. In other school districts, parents are asking for
waivers from English immersion for their children with limited English
speaking ability. Contrary to the argument that such waivers are part of
a plot by the bilingual education establishment in league with Latino activists
to subvert the measure, the reality is that many Latino parents, while
clearly and wholeheartedly supporting the learning of English for their
children, have qualms about school environments where teachers are unable
to communicate directly with their children. Recognizing the problems and
uncertainty the initiative has created, these parents are voting with their
feet to continue education as they know it: bilingually.
The percentage of Latino parents who opt
for these waivers also should not surprise anyone. Two out of three Latinos
voted against the initiative--this in spite of the fact that pundits and
proponents of Proposition 227 were claiming to have the majority of the
Latino community on the side of the measure.
Still, recognizing that Proposition 227 is,
for better or worse, the law of the land, there is a way to get around
its inherent problems. But first, everyone involved in this issue must
stop the unproductive attacks on school districts that are hamstrung by
the measure's provisions. This applies not only to the Unz crowd, but also
to the fervent supporters of bilingual education who are themselves gearing
up to attack the poor implementation of other provisions of Proposition
Instead, let's take a step back and consider
the new educational landscape under Proposition 227, which provides us
with opportunities to teach English to non-English speaking children. With
English-only, English-immersion, bilingual education, dual-language instruction
and who knows what other hybrids, we now have conditions for a social experiment
to determine how best to teach children English and keep them advancing
at their grade level.
What we really need is more careful monitoring
and accountability of what is happening in the hundreds of school districts
across the state, no matter the timetable for implementation or the percentage
of districts seeking waivers. Rabid attacks and partisan arguing
won't teach English to our children. Cooperation, clear information on
what works and what doesn't and sound teaching methods will.
Harry P. Pachon Is a Professor of Political
Studies at Pitzer College and Claremont Graduate University and President
of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute