Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wedneday, June 10, 1998

When Voters Handcuff Educators

As practiced in California, the ballot initiative -- whereby voters themselves enact a law -- is proving to work only a tad better than does mob rule. The policy put in the hangman's noose this time was bilingual education. The rest of the nation must not follow California's impetuous lead.

As a rule, a state ban on the use by educators of a particular teaching strategy is not a bright idea. The state may be tossing into the trash heap an approach that's effective in some cases.

Better that educators be allowed to keep their options open. The state should hold school officials accountable for results, not methods.

In fact, some schools that use the bilingual approach (the Inter-American School in Chicago, for instance) are among the nation's leaders in urban education -- a strong indicator that the strategy works well, at least sometimes. Hence, barring the use of that option in practically all cases, evermore, is foolish.

As the nation absorbs a new wave of immigrants, schools across the land, including Dairyland, are increasingly facing the challenge of educating students with a limited command of English. Proposition 227, as the initiative was called, is precisely how not to meet that challenge.

Besides putting off-limits a possibly useful educational strategy, the measure put to a majority vote a minority right -- which is likewise wrong. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that non-English-speaking Asian students enjoyed the right to the same opportunities as other San Francisco students to learn their course material -- a ruling that accelerated California down the road of bilingual education.

Now, California voters seem to have attempted to override that judicially enforced right, which is not how the United States is designed to work.

Under bilingual education, students take some courses, such as math and social science, in their native language while they're learning English. The idea is to keep the students from falling behind academically while they're still struggling with an unfamiliar tongue.

Sure, the state of public education is not great in America, particularly for youngsters of color. Thus, many Latinos are not doing well in school. What's more, many bilingual programs are badly run.

But to throw out all bilingual programs -- the good and the bad -- on that basis is to make a horrible leap in logic that must be confined to California.