New Times Los Angeles

Thursday, November 20, 1997

Moral D-Unz
Backers of a ballot initiative to do away with bilingual ed should use their political muscle to get more money for starved public schools.
By MARC COOPER

Confused people come in all colors. That truth was indelibly burned into my memory back in the last decade when, while visiting South Africa in the darkest days of apartheid, I was astonished to see that many of the truncheon-swinging security police were black.

That's maybe why I'm so unimpressed when backers of the anti-bilingual "Education for the Children" initiative trot out this or that clump of Latino supporters of the measure. Big deal.

I don't know. Maybe it's something in our state water supply that produces such political wackiness. Or more likely it's because California sits at the epicenter of an ongoing demographic shaker. Either way, as one more aftershock to the jolts of Props 187 and 209, this new divisive ballot initiative is rattling its way up through the fissures of our political topography and promises to have an explosive effect on California's public schools, which now teach half the nation's immigrant children.

If approved, the measure would virtually wipe out bilingual instruction for the 1.3 million students currently classified as "limited English proficient" and place them instead in English immersion classes--what some critics call a "sink-or-swim" situation.

Which brings me to geeky Silicon Valley multimillionaire Ron Unz--who won 35% of the GOP vote in his primary run against Governor Peewee Wilson three years ago--who's spearheading and underwriting the measure. Unz says he was driven to compassion and then to action after learning of the case of 200 Latino parents who had to boycott an elementary school before an admittedly jackassed Los Angeles Unified School District adminstration allowed their children to move out of bilingual classes. "California has proved that bilingual education doesn't work," declares Unz.

To his credit, Unz did oppose the Dickensian 187, which threatens to bar undocumented aliens from our public schools. But so did most other big employers, who cringe at any notion of putting a crimp in the flow of cheap, illegal labor into the state. Indeed, Unz knows well that he has picked the worst possible venue and the worst possible time to sort out the thorny issue of bilingual education. No matter his personal views on race, Unz would have to be brain-dead not to realize his initiative is sweet music to the swelling army of vengeful nativists and xenophobes that population the California electorate.

"This could be a big boon for us," one local GOP political strategist admits happily. "Who can deny that Pete Wilson owes much of his 1994 electoral victory to the conservative turnout generated by Prop 187. Voting against Mexicans, or in this case, against their language, brings out our real red-meat crowd. And in droves."

Barely two days after the strategist made that statement he was proven correct by the results of the November 4 election down the road in Orange. An "advisory" vote against bilingual education in that area's school district got a whopping 80 percent-plus of the vote. It also increased voter turnout by almost 40 percent over previous balloting and led directly to a sweep of Board of Education seats by an ultra-conservative slate.

What glee those results must bring to the eyes of Ron Unz as he calculates how much of a political boost he can reap by running for statewide office alongside his new bash-the-kids proposal. If it were truly compassion for immigrant children that motivated Unz, he would keep their curriculum as far away as possible from the statewide electorate.

After all, this measure to supposed benefit Spanish-speaking students is to be adjudicated by the same voters who three years ago voted to kick them out of public schools.

So who's kidding whom here? No matter the pros and cons, are we to believe that any eventual vote to scrap bilingual ed is fueled by anything but racial resentment? This measure plays right into the hands of Anglo voters resentful over what they see as an incursion of Latinos into the mainstream. You can bet this measure will win, not because the electorate has made a serious study of effective teaching methods, but because of those who spend their time grumbling about street signs in Spanish, Spanish spoken in the workplace, Mexicans taking away our jobs, and about our tax dollars being wasted on the kids of illegal aliens.

The public rhetoric of initiative supporters is more delicate, of course. They instead argue that test scores prove that bilingual education is ineffective and, further, that school administrators cling to these programs only to sock away the extra dollars given by the state for each student enrolled in bilingual classes. Let's look at these two assertions.

For every study there's a counter-study. The most recent from two researchers at George Mason University argues that, contrary to Unz's claims, the longer a student stays in bilingual classes, the better the result. "The biggest problem we have with bilingual education in California is that it's not applied enough," says a veteran L.A. teacher. "Maybe a third of bilingual classes are taught by a truly qualified teacher who can really speak Spanish. What really happens is that the part-time, non-professional aides [many of them native Spanish speakers] wind up having to do the real bulk of instruction."

And there resides a great irony. If and when the Unz initiative passes, bilingual classrooms won't disappear--they'll just go underground. "If on the day after the vote I can no longer teach in Spanish to my first grade kids," says a San Fernando Valley teacher, "what do you think's going to happen? When I'm up there yammering in English and a classroom of Salvadoran six-year-olds is looking back with blank stares, you know Goddamn well my classroom aide is going to translate every word I said back into Spanish. The only difference is, I won't be allowed to have any texts in Spanish. What a bad joke."

To imagine any other scenario is delusional. Strange that many Americans--most of whom are petrified when they have to even order a coffee in a foreign language while touring overseas--are so ready to take little kids and put them in an English-only, sink-or-swim environment.

As for the claim that school administrators use bilingual programs to squeeze more money out of the state, well, if that's true, more power to them. Remember in this debate over education that California public schools spend half as much per student as the nation's best-funded districts. And it's people like Ron Unz and the rest of the state's business lobby who fought like tigers three years ago to defeat a tax measure that would have kept homeowners protected while raising corporate tax--a measure that would have provided cash-starved state schools with a buoy of a billion dollars or more per year. Instead, spineless state politicians of both parties have come up only with market-driven "school reform" packages that do nothing but pit one school against another in the quest for meager private grant funding, while closing the books on even the suggestion of increased state funding. No wonder that many California campuses are failing.

But why the feigned shock over performance? These Spanish-speaking children most often live in substandard housing and have precarious or illegal immigration status. Their parents are the overworked and underpaid human machinery in California's textile sweatshops, janitorial businesses, and strawberry fields. When you take these kids from their stressed-out families and crowd them into underfunded and politically orphaned schools, just what sort of text scores do you expect from them?

Don't misunderstand. There is legitimate debate about bilingual education: its cost, its effectiveness, its implementation, if it even needs to exist. The channels for this dialogue come in the form of functioning statewide educational advisory committees--the same groups that shape curricula and authorize standard texts. Only the mischievous and the pernicious would politicize this debate and toss the most vulnerable of children onto the ballot as electoral fodder. To put this matter up for a yes/no vote by an electorate with a demonstrated track-record of immigrant-scapegoating is both intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible.

If initiative backers are so concerned about the language in which these kids are taught, aren't they also concerned about the subject matter being taught? By their logic, shouldn't we be putting individual textbooks up for a statewide approval?

Ron Unz and his followers say they want to do away with bilingual education for the sake of the children. But if they really cared about California kids, they would use their political muscle to bring some social justice to our skewed tax structure, more money to our starved public schools, and a livable and dignified wage to the parents of these children. When such conditions are met, maybe then we can have a fair debate over what language should predominate in the classroom. But until then, we can do without the likes of Unz.