Los Angeles Times
Thursday, February 26, 1998
PERSPECTIVE ON BILINGUAL EDUCATION
Alpert-Firestone: Recipe for Chaos
Giving school boards total authority over methods means potential
for reversal at every local election.
By RON UNZ
If a pending state Senate bill purporting to reform bilingual education
becomes law, it could ignite ethnic tensions in California for years to
The fundamental principle behind the bill,
co-sponsored by Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone
(R-Los Olivos), is local control--namely, placing most decisions on language
acquisition policy in the hands of locally elected school boards. But supporters
seem not to have thought through the real-life consequences of their proposal.
First, the Alpert-Firestone bill would have
almost no actual impact on the half a million California schoolchildren
currently locked into our system of Spanish-only bilingual education. The
overwhelming majority of these students are in just a handful of huge school
districts--nearly half are in the Los Angeles Unified School District alone--and
the elected school boards and educational administrations of these districts
are absolutely and totally committed to maintaining bilingual education
programs. Placing decision-making in the hands of these same individuals
is simply a means of ratifying the status quo.
The secondary and unintended consequences
of the Alpert-Firestone bill are damaging, rather than merely ineffective.
There are about 7,000 elected school board
members in California and tens of thousands of other individuals who eagerly
eye these seats, which often represent the starting rung on the ladder
of political advancement. School board elections receive minimal media
coverage and have very low voter turnout, while most candidates are underfunded
and therefore desperate to find some issue--any issue--by which to separate
themselves from the pack and draw potential supporters to the polls.
By placing bilingual education policy squarely
in the hands of local school boards, passage of the Alpert-Firestone bill
would provide every prospective school board candidate from San Diego to
Yolo County with the lure of the hot-button political issue of bilingual
education. And this would be a severe threat to the well-being of our schools.
Although the vast majority of Californians
of all backgrounds dislike bilingual education, supporters are far better
organized and more politically active than opponents, which helps to explain
its long-standing survival in the face of failure and unpopularity. In
low-turnout school board races, energy and activist organization often
outweigh raw polling numbers. Both pro- and anti-bilingual candidates might
find raising the issue to be in their political interests, if only to mobilize
Campaigns on potentially divisive social
issues are almost inevitably dominated by the most strident forces on both
sides, who symbiotically feed off each other's extremist rhetoric. It has
required forethought and tremendous effort to prevent this from being the
immediate fate of our own "English for the Children" (Proposition
227) initiative drive, and our continued success over the next few months
is by no means completely assured. If thousands of local school board candidates
each year are bludgeoning each other with the bilingual education issue,
one can easily imagine the level of ethnic haranguing and counterharanguing
that would quickly result. The dreadful busing wars of the late 1970s might
seem localized and tame by comparison.
Since bilingual education is widely unpopular,
except among a fraction of Democratic activists, passage of the Alpert-Firestone
bill would probably provide a long-term political advantage to partisan
Republicans. This may explain the overwhelming Republican support for the
legislation when it was introduced last year.
Support for the Alpert-Firestone bill by
the California Teachers Assn. and other union organizations is much more
difficult to understand, since the measure gives local conservative activists
the one political weapon that might regularly overcome the organizational
and financial advantages of union-backed school board candidates in most
But neither sincere liberals nor sincere
conservatives should support a measure that could turn language education
into a permanent political football. Consider the utter incoherence of
educational policy in a possible "swing" school district: A 4-3
pro-bilingual school board majority might preserve bilingual programs,
then be replaced at the next election by a 4-3 anti-bilingual majority
committed to eliminating them, only to revert to a 4-3 pro-bilingual majority
promising to restore them--all in a matter of just a few years. The very
real possibility that educational policy for immigrant children could change
after every school board election is a recipe for utter chaos.
Ron Unz is chairman of the "English
for the Children" (Proposition 227) initiative campaign.