Los Angeles Times

Sunday, May 3, 1998

End Bilingual Schooling? It Hasn't Even Been Fully Implemented Yet
The program has always lacked proper funding. Prop. 227 -- 'Politics for the Children' -- is deeply flawed in concept.

English for the Children is an irresistible promise. Who among us would want to do anything to hurt our children? We all want them to be fluent in English. If Proposition 227 only could deliver on its auspicious promise, we would solve one significant problem now facing our schools.
     The sad fact is, though, that Proposition 227 is deeply flawed, both in concept and application. Two of its core premises are that "literacy in the English language is among the most important" of those "skills necessary to become productive members of our society" and that English is the "language of economic opportunity."
     While no one would argue against the tremendous value of English fluency in social mobility, we wonder about the underlying logic of these premises. If language is the determining factor in economic and social success, how do we account for the lagging economic advancement of African Americans, contrasted with the accelerated advancement of Asians and Asian Americans? Are there other factors at work?
     Not according to Proposition 227, which lays the blame for the slow academic advancement of many English language learners on bilingual education. The initiative states that "the public schools currently do a poor job of educating immigrant children, wasting financial resources on costly experimental language programs . . , " resulting in high dropout rates. This is a powerful and concise indictment of bilingual education, one that seems reasonable on its face. But the accusation is both mistaken and misdirected.
     In 1997, bilingual education claimed $96 million in state funds, or less than one-half of 1% of the total K-12 budget of $26.8 billion.
     The federal government contributes only 6% of the bilingual budget. Remaining money is provided by local districts, whose funding levels have been constrained by Proposition 13. Those schools that educate some of our state's poorest students, many of whom are English language learners, have the lowest tax base and therefore the fewest resources to meet the educational needs of their students. In fact, we have not provided adequate funding for bilingual education to sustain its effectiveness.
     The truth is that bilingual education barely exists in California. Each year we fall short of needed bilingual teachers by more than 20,000. Immersion programs, which will be mandatory under Proposition 227, have contributed substantially to historically high dropout rates of English language learners.
     It is no surprise that bilingual education has failed to meet our expectations; we have never fully implemented it in the state. So now there is an effort to eliminate it, and an accompanying promise that English immersion will solve our language problems. How can this be, when study after study has demonstrated that English fluency takes anywhere from five to eight years, and that just because students can converse casually in English does not mean they can solve algebraic word problems in English? How can we scapegoat bilingual education for the litany of problems that plague K-12 education in California?
     The simple truth is, we can't, at least not for very long. Because if Proposition 227 passes, we quickly will see devastating effects on English language acquisition, as hundreds of thousands of students are thrust into English-only classrooms before they are ready. We will witness the end of local control of our schools, which has been essential to the democratic process of public education.
     So now the question is, why haven't we supported bilingual education? The best research demonstrates that students who maintain fluency in their native language also achieve greater fluency in English because they are able to transfer the more subtle and sophisticated aspects of linguistic comprehension from one language to another. But still we have remained ambivalent.
     Unfortunately, from the beginning, bilingual education was conceptualized as remedial, and English language learners as deficient. Although we valorize foreign language acquisition for college-bound students, foreign languages are seen as second best for our children. We persist in denigrating what is not "American."
     Until we realize that our resistance to bilingual education is political rather than educational, no initiative to end bilingual education can promise English for the children and really mean it.
Manuel N. Gomez is vice chancellor of UC Irvine. Robin L. Harders is special assistant to the vice chancellor.