Los Angeles Times
Sunday, November 30, 1997
An Opportunity for Latino Lawmakers to Take the Lead
By GREGORY RODRIGUEZ
Although Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz's "English for the
Children" initiative has not yet qualified for the June 1998 ballot,
it has already altered the future of bilingual education and the politics
that long have surrounded it.
Before the Unz initiative, any effort to
overhaul the state's bilingual-education system invariably gridlocked in
the Legislature. But now that early polls indicate that voters, particularly
Latinos, favor the Unz proposal, many state Latino legislators are considering
whether to introduce legislation of their own "to fix" bilingual
If passed, English for the Children would
require limited-English students to be taught in English unless their parents
requested otherwise. These students would have no more than one year of
"sheltered English" instruction--teachers using simple, accessible
language--before being transitioned into a regular classroom. The initiative,
however, in no way precludes the need for a language-learning policy to
both guide and keep educators accountable.
Not that long ago, members of the state Latino
Legislative Caucus would have gone down fighting the Unz initiative or,
for that matter, any proposal that sought to overhaul bilingual education.
Just three months ago, the caucus kept state Sen. Dede Alpert's bilingual-education
reform bill from a floor vote.
But the apparent popularity of the Unz measure
has forced state Latino lawmakers to rethink their position on bilingual
education. Several key Latino legislators, including Cruz Bustamante, speaker
of the Assembly, have been discussing the possibility of amending the Alpert
bill to create new legislation that would address some of the main critiques
of bilingual education. Among the proposed amendments are a three-year
time limit on the bilingual education, a requirement of a minimum of two
hours of English instruction a day, and allowing local districts and parents
more choice in deciding which teaching methods are best.
By spearheading legislative change in bilingual
education, Latino lawmakers could dilute the urgency currently infusing
the Unz initiative. Should the Unz measure triumph, even if overwhelmingly,
they would be well-positioned to help manage its implementation by supplying
content to any new program. And if English for the Children is tied up
in the courts, the recent fate of most controversial state initiatives,
the Latino-sponsored legislation temporarily could fill the vacuum and
satisfy the growing demand for bilingual-education reform.
In the same way that Proposition 187 was
about more than illegal immigration, the bilingual-education debate is
a proxy battle over the nature of assimilation. For a generation, it has
been debated in cultural rather than pedagogical terms. Its supporters
often cite the benefits of maintaining children's ethnic or linguistic
heritage and of the increasing importance of multilingualism in the global
marketplace. Its opponents insist that immigrants should learn English
and fret about how today's newcomers are not as eager to "Americanize"
as were their predecessors.
But bilingual education is not a cultural
issue. Indeed, as it is practiced in California, it has nothing to do with
bilingualism. According to the state Department of Education, "The
primary goal of all [bilingual] programs is, as effectively and efficiently
as possible, to develop in each child fluency in English." The vast
majority of bilingual programs in California use "early-exit transitional
bilingual education," in which students are expected to transition
into "mainstream English" classes after three or four years of
instruction in their primary language. Early-exit programs are designed
to teach children how to read and write in their native language in the
belief that they will then be better able to learn another language, which
is English. They are not meant to make children fully literate in their
Last January, the National Research Council
released a report calling most evaluations of bilingual-education programs
worthless. The report not only claimed that politicization of the issue
has hampered reliable research, but also that scholarly efforts to prove
the superiority of either English-only or bilingual education are pointless.
The report's authors urged that studies should focus on identifying the
teaching methods that work best in specific communities, according to local
needs and available resources.
In California, even bilingual-education supporters
don't think the current system is working. While defending the integrity
of primary-language instruction, the California Assn. of Bilingual Educators,
a lobbying group, concedes that perhaps 10% or fewer of the state's bilingual
programs are well implemented. A perennial shortage of bilingual teachers
is one of the main reasons. California currently needs more than 20,000
additional bilingual teachers to adequately serve the state's 1.3 million
limited-English students. But few proponents have considered the possibility
that, while bilingual education works in some cases, it may be too labor-
and resource-intensive to be effective on a broad scale.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District,
which has fully supported bilingual education for years, there is no evidence
that the program is achieving its stated goals. Despite the politics engulfing
the program since its inception, LAUSD administrators never have found
it necessary to compile reliable longitudinal data to evaluate it. Instead,
school board members and administrators usually have relied on rhetoric
to defend bilingual education. Carmen N. Schroeder, former head of bilingual
instruction for LAUSD, took pleasure in warning that "if we got rid
of bilingual education, we'd be creating a huge underclass."
While federal law requires schools to provide
special language instruction to assist English learners in obtaining an
equal education, it does not mandate the form that this assistance must
take. But for three decades, a mixture of idealism, blind faith and administrative
arrogance has kept bilingual education afloat and unassailable. Indeed,
the prolonged suppression of any meaningful debate about the efficacy of
bilingual education may be one reason why an initiative seeking to undermine
primary-language instruction has found a large, receptive audience. The
problem is that California's initiatives are usually the worst way to solve
When first introduced, some feared English
for the Children would become the third racially divisive ballot measure
in as many elections. Six months later, there is a near-universal consensus
that bilingual education desperately needs reform. To his credit, Unz has
turned what had been a pseudo-cultural debate into an important political
To its credit, the Latino caucus, so far,
has not caved in to its traditional impulse to take on any and all opponents
of bilingual education. But because four of five limited-English students
in California are Spanish-speaking, Latino legislators do have an obligation
to play a more affirmative role in the debate over the future of primary-language
instruction. Since directly opposing the Unz initiative appears politically
unviable, Latino officials have a choice between endorsing English for
the Children or leading a worthwhile pedagogical debate toward immediate
legislative reform of bilingual education.
But regardless of whether the Unz initiative
wins or loses, or whether Latino legislators muster enough support to legislate
changes in bilingual education, at least there is now widespread agreement
that when it comes to properly educating California's limited-English students,
idealism and sound theory are not enough.
Gregory Rodriguez, an Associate Editor
at Pacific News Service, is a Research Fellow at Pepperdine's Institute
for Public Policy.