Los Angeles Times
Friday, June 5, 1998
With the Whipping Boy of Bilingual Ed Out, Heat Is
Now on the System
Prop. 227: School boards, principals all will be held accountable
for transitioning students into mainstream.
By HARRY P. PACHON
The California electorate--the state's fourth branch of government--has
spoken on the issue of bilingual education by soundly endorsing Proposition
227, which would abolish the current system of bilingual education.
Predictably, opponents led by the Mexican
American Legal Defense and Educational Fund went to court Wednesday to
block implementation of the anti-bilingual initiative, while some educators
vowed to defy it. We also shouldn't be surprised if other states begin
similar measures, and we can expect Congress to take the signal from California
as an excuse to hack the federal budget for such programs.
In the meantime, it would be easy for Latinos
and other immigrant communities with large numbers of limited-English-speaking
children to view the vote as a stunning defeat and a repudiation of their
role in American society.
But the passage of the initiative is not
the racially polarizing event that it appears to be on first blush, and
its implementation, if it ever comes to that, may offer Latinos and others
a unique opportunity to exact real benefits for their children in the public
On the issue of ethnicity, it comes as no
surprise that "yes" and "no" votes crossed ethnic lines,
more so than the vote on Proposition 187, which dealt with the issue of
public benefits for immigrants, or on Proposition 209, which eliminated
state-sponsored affirmative action. Sure, the majority of Latinos voted
against Proposition 227, while the majority of white non-Latinos voted
In Southern California, you can easily predict
how a city voted by looking at the number of Latinos in that municipality.
Proposition 227 lost in Huntington Park, for example, by a margin of 1
to 2, while in Rancho Palos Verdes it won 3 to 1.
But statewide, 37% of Latinos voted "yes,"
a significant share. Moreover, in a refreshing move, the gubernatorial
candidates went out of their way to express opposition to the initiative,
a brave stand in light of Tuesday's more than 60% "yes" vote
The support Proposition 227 did enjoy from
the Latino community highlights that community's genuine and pressing desire
for its children to learn English, even if for some it means tossing out
the baby with the bathwater by doing away with bilingual ed. That is the
message policymakers in Sacramento and educators in local communities should
hear loud and clear.
If we take a step back, it's possible to
assess why bilingual education became so unpopular. At the very heart of
the issue are the political semantics of bilingual education. "Bilingual"
to most people means fluency in two languages. That differs with the educational
definition, a pedagogic approach utilizing the language of the home to
transition the child into another language.
But the bilingual education establishment failed to realize how visceral
the issue of English language is to many Americans and how necessary it
is to keep these two concepts separate.
The bilingual education establishment also
should be taken to task by the Latino community, which has the largest
number of children in these programs, for not offering accountability and
exemplary models of success. Why did it take so long for the successes
of bilingual education in Calexico, Santa Ana or Ontario to be brought
In any case, for Latinos and other immigrant
communities, the opportunity presented by the initiative's passage is the
spotlight it throws on the inadequacies of California's mainstream public
education system in teaching English to their children. Too often bilingual
education was used as the sop to demonstrate a school district's concern
for teaching English.
Now, with the possibility of bilingual ed
disappearing, school boards, superintendents and principals all will feel
the need to be accountable for effectively transitioning children with
limited English proficiency into mainstream classrooms.
Parents, advocacy groups and the media will
be paying close and critical attention to how the state's public education
system fulfills the task of teaching these children now that the whipping
boy of bilingual education has been thrown out.
With the opportunity for real gains comes
high risks. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was the architect of the Great
Society programs in the 1960s, was purported to have said that any idiot
can tear a house down, but it's a different matter to build one.
Now that 227 sponsor Ron Unz and his ilk
have torn the bilingual ed house down, let's hope that they show the same
commitment to helping build a structure that truly provides equal educational
opportunity for the hundreds of thousands of Latino and other limited-English-speaking
children in the state.
Harry P. Pachon Is a Professor of Political Studies at Pitzer College
and the Claremont Graduate University and President of the Tomas Rivera