Los Angeles Times
Sunday, May 3, 1998
End Bilingual Schooling? It Hasn't Even Been Fully
The program has always lacked proper funding. Prop. 227 -- 'Politics
for the Children' -- is deeply flawed in concept.
By MANUEL N. GOMEZ, ROBIN L. HARDERS
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
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.