Los Angeles Times
Friday, January 30, 1998
PERSPECTIVE ON THE UNZ INITIATIVE
It's Much More Than Anti-Bilingual
Parents, teachers and local boards would lose control and choices
in how immigrants' children are taught English.
By RALPH C. CARMONA
The proposed "English for the Children" initiative, sponsored
by millionaire businessman Ron Unz for the June ballot, is being interpreted
by the media and touted by its proponents as an "anti-bilingual"
It is much more than that. It seizes on popular
feelings against "bilingual" education in order to do away with
all approaches to teaching non-English-speaking children except one: It
imposes English-only teaching on every classroom in the state, tying the
hands of parents, principals, teachers, superintendents and school boards.
The end result will be increased educational costs to correct its failures,
as well as legal costs for the damage to the children it pretends to help.
Immigrant children do learn English. The
largest long-range study of immigrant students, recently completed by Princeton
and Michigan State researchers, found that these children were quick to
embrace English over their parents' native language, and often had better
grades and lower dropout rates than their fellow American-born students.
The Unz measure fraudulently appeals to the
immigrant hunger for English by depicting existing education programs as
anti-English. Look at the distorted media accounts of polls interpreting
strong support for his proposal in the Latino community as evidence of
Latino hostility toward bilingual education. What immigrant parent would
oppose a proposal supporting the common sense need to learn English?
The Unz crowd claims that the initiative
restores "parental choice." It is a false choice. Parents would
have to petition for alternative instruction, and if fewer than 20 children
per grade level were found eligible for that waiver, their only other choice
would be to transfer to another school. Worst of all, the waiver is only
for children already fluent in English, older than 10 or found to have
"special needs." Their waivers would then require a school superintendent's
approval and review by the local and state boards of education.
Last year, after the Orange Unified School
District terminated non-English assistance for 1,500 of the estimated 7,000
eligible students, petitions from 800 parents were totally ignored. If
800 parents requesting "choice" could not influence a school
board, how will this bureaucratic parent waiver make a difference?
Inner-city parental choice already is often
hamstrung by too few classes to choose from or bureaucratic arrogance.
These schools also often suffer from uncertain funding and insufficient
staffing. Unz's anti-choice initiative would only worsen matters.
Unz's prescription, "sheltered"
English "immersion," is reminiscent of my student experience
during the 1960s at predominantly Latino schools in East Los Angeles. It
was a time when crude English-only methods sent the non-English speaking
to the back of the classroom. In an educational twilight zone of diminished
individualism, many students found themselves speaking a confused English-Spanish
amalgam. More than 60% dropped out in search of dead-end jobs or the security
of a delinquent barrio gang.
Do we really want an education code that
forces together children of different ages, grades and languages into an
English-only class for one year, and then pushes them into the sink-or-swim
school environment of a generation ago? How will classes of non-English-speaking
children and their parents communicate with English-only teachers? Should
teachers daring to communicate in a child's native language be subjected
These concerns, among many others in this
one-size-fits-all proposal, mean more segregation, less choice, a further
centralized bureaucracy, increased public school liability and less productive
education at greater costs. Like previous destructive initiatives hostile
to access for immigrants, minorities and women, this deceptive English-learning
endeavor is bloated with ideology and bureaucracy. Its top-down mandate
violates the conservative philosophy of less government intrusion, local
control and more parental choice. It is another example of false symbolism
and false promise, the simplistic notion that we can address a complex
policy issue with the wave of an initiative.
Ralph C. Carmona is a former member of the University of California
Board of Regents.