Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, February 11, 1998

Test Question No. 1: Define Bilingual Education
Unz initiative: The debate is starting off with a lot of 'facts' that need clarification.

"Children in bilingual education are being taught all day in Spanish. They will never learn English that way!" "More than 1.3 million children in California are in bilingual education." "Bilingual education costs the taxpayers billions each year."
     Statements like these fuel a new initiative that Californians will vote on in June. The initiative is sponsored by English for the Children, an organization launched for this purpose by millionaire software developer Ron Unz, with Orange County teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman. It is based on a great deal of misinformation about bilingual education.
     While solid research supports bilingual education, many misconceptions, such as those above, persist.
     * Students in bilingual programs do get instruction in English; the law requires it.
     Opponents of bilingual education complain that children with limited proficiency in English who are in bilingual programs spend all their class time learning in their first language. Those people forget that bilingual means "two languages." When there is a proficient bilingual teacher in a bilingual classroom, students may be taught content in their first language, but must have English language development classes daily. In true bilingual classrooms, students keep up in academic subjects like science through study in their first language, but even in bilingual classrooms, the typical amount of instruction not in English is less than one hour a day.
     * Only a minority of non-English speakers are in bilingual classrooms, not the large numbers suggested by supporters of the Unz initiative.
     In California last year there were 1.3 million students with limited English proficiency in grades kindergarten through 12. The state school census reported that only 30% of these students received instruction in their primary languages. Even this estimate is high. In many classrooms listed as bilingual, the teacher is not truly bilingual, and therefore most instruction is in English.
     The supply of proficient bilingual teachers in California has never met the demand. Every year since 1993, California has needed about 21,000 more bilingual teachers than were available. In 1997, there were only 13,548 credentialed bilingual teachers, when 34,375 were needed.
     * Bilingual education does not cost billions of taxpayer dollars. In 1997, California's total K-12 education budget was $26.8 billion. Of that, the amount budgeted for bilingual instruction was $96 million, or 0.4% of the total. For special services for all students with limited English proficiency, California allotted $319 million, or 1.2% of the total education budget. This figure is certainly not high when you consider that English is not the primary language of 24% of all school-age children in California.
     The "English for the Children" initiative seeks to solve a problem that doesn't exist. Research supports bilingual education, but true bilingual education has been difficult to implement in California. The number of students in bilingual classes is smaller than what the initiative's backers claim. The amount of primary language spoken in bilingual classes is less than is claimed. And the money spent on bilingual classes is much lower than one would expect.
     Voters in the June primary should look at the facts before they commit California to the prescriptions of two activists.

Yvonne Freeman and David Freeman are faculty members at Fresno Pacific University Graduate School, where she directs the Bilingual Cross-cultural Program and he directs the Teachers of English as a Second Language and Language Development programs.