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.

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 227.
     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