New York Times

Tuesday, March 10, 1998

Bilingual Education Faces Major Test in California

LA HABRA, Calif. -- Rose Espinoza and Alice Callaghan spend much of their lives nurturing the American Dreams of poor and working class Latino immigrant children by tutoring them after school in English, math and faith in themselves and in their new country.

The two women have never met, but they agree that if the children they care about so deeply are to do better than working in a sweatshop, as many of their parents do, then the key is for them to learn how to read, write and speak English as quickly as possible. Still, when it comes to the best way for the public schools to teach those make or break lessons, Mrs. Espinoza and Ms. Callaghan are on opposite sides of a bitter debate.

Ms. Callaghan supports a California ballot initiative that could virtually wipe out bilingual education in the country's most populous and diverse state. Mrs. Espinoza opposes it.

It is called Proposition 227, or the English for the Children initiative, or simply the Unz initiative after its author and chief financial backer, Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire and conservative Republican who has no children or background in education and has never set foot in a bilingual education class. "I don't know if I'd really learn much," he said. But Unz, who is 36 and a former candidate for governor, said he has been interested in the issue for more than a decade and has come to an unwavering conclusion: "The system seems completely nuts. It's time for a change."

If 227 passes on June 2, as polls suggest that it will, the tremors will be felt far beyond California's borders. The battle here is being carefully watched by educators and politicians across the country. In essence, voters will decide whether to end an era of pedagogy first ushered into the state's school houses in 1967 when Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a bill eliminating the state's English-only instructional mandate and allowing bilingual education. In its place, the Unz initiative calls for a one-year intensive English language course that many fear is a return to a past when children were sometimes punished for speaking Spanish, but others say is a return to sanity.

Supporters of 227 blame bilingual education for a variety of educational ills, including high dropout rates, although only 30 percent of the state's 1.4 million pupils with limited English proficiency are actually enrolled in bilingual classes. Largely because of a severe shortage of up to 20,000 bilingual teachers, the rest of the pupils -- 70 percent -- are enrolled in other language programs that emphasize English over the native tongue, the kind of method that the initiative would require for every child, with some tightly observed exceptions.

Mrs. Espinoza sees the initiative as a knee-jerk, simplistic and even a xenophobic response to a method that is flawed but proven, if implemented properly: teaching children English while at the same time keeping them up to date with their other studies in their native tongue, which is the heart of bilingual education.

"Proposition 227 will set back the clock," Mrs. Espinoza said. "It's not easy to learn English. To do it in one year well enough to keep up academically is ridiculous. They are playing with the lives and the futures of 1.4 million children. I'm going to do everything I can to defeat it."

But Ms. Callaghan, an Episcopalian priest, insists, "Bilingual education is a total failure." She led a boycott by 75 Latino families of a Los Angeles public school two years ago demanding that their children be put into mainstream classes. "The kids aren't learning English," she asserts. "Our kids want to be doctors and lawyers. They don't want to end up cleaning houses or selling tamales on the corner."

Like the gut-wrenching battles across the Golden State over immigration in 1994 and affirmative action last year, Proposition 227 is about much more than what is printed in the initiative. It is also about race, class, culture, shifting demographics, politics, control, fear and sometimes even education.

"This is really about adult agendas," said Genethia Hayes, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, "but it's going to impact children."

Every day in California, more than 1.4 million children -- about a quarter of the state's elementary and high school students -- walk into a classroom with only a limited ability to speak or understand English. No state has more children for whom English is a second language. In the schoolhouse halls and on the playgrounds, the tongues of the world can be heard, including Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and Armenian.

The theory behind bilingual education is to teach core subjects, such as U.S. history and math, in the native tongue of the pupils so they do not fall behind, while gradually increasing the use of English. The goal is to have the student in all-English language classes within three to five years or sometimes longer.

In the 19th century, schools across the country often taught young immigrants in their native tongue and English. In Ohio, it was German and English. In Louisiana, it was French and English.

But proponents of 227 say that children are not learning English fast enough or well enough because they waste too much time being instructed in Spanish (80 percent of the children are Spanish speaking) or whatever language is spoken at home.

Opponents of the initiative say that 227 is a "one size fits all" approach that robs parents and local school districts of choice and the flexibility needed to educate such a diverse and vast population. "In a state that prides itself on local control, this initiative takes away local control," said Delaine Eastin, the state's superintendent of public instruction, who is on the long list of teachers, school administrators, labor unions, civil rights groups, scholars and parents who oppose 227.

Unz also has parents on his side, as well as Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles math teacher whose innovations in the classroom were told in the film "Stand and Deliver," and the state Republican Party, which endorsed the initiative over the strong objections of the party's leadership.

Unz argued that one year of intensive English training should be enough for most children to swim in the mainstream. "It's simple," he said. "Take little kids, put them in a class and teach them English."

A year may be enough time, if all Unz and his supporters want the children to learn is conversational or "playground English," said James Crawford, the former Washington editor of Education Week and an expert on bilingual education. Crawford said that a blizzard of studies show that it takes much longer for a student to learn "academic English," the ability to understand and express concepts more complicated than ordering a burger from a fast food restaurant.

Unz said he puts no credence in any of the research on either side of the debate.

"It's all garbage," he said.

A small forest has been chopped down in the last 30 years to study the merits and failures of bilingual education across the country, but many of the studies were highly politicized and fatally ill with bias, according to a committee of the National Research Council, which released a report last year on the dozens of efforts to determine the best way to teach English.

But Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education at Stanford University and the chairman of the committee, which included experts from among other institutions, the Center of Applied Linguistics, Harvard University and the University of Chicago, said that after sifting through all the paper, the group found a slight but clear advantage in favor of bilingual education over English immersion methods like the one proposed in the Unz initiative. Hakuta added that no one method is the answer for 1.4 million children.

"Bilingual education is a valuable tool," he said. "If people really read what the Unz initiative proposes, I think support for it will erode, but not enough to defeat it."

Early opinion polls show widespread support, including among Latinos, for eliminating bilingual education. But Latino support seems to be shrinking with every new poll. In December, according to the statewide Field poll, the overall support was 69 percent in favor and 24 percent against. Among Latinos, it was 66 percent in favor to 30 percent opposed. In February, in a second Field poll, overall support was 66 percent in favor and 27 percent opposed. Among Latinos, it was 46 percent in favor and 45 percent against. State Sen. Richard Polanco, the head of the Legislature's Latino Caucus, said he expects most Latinos will vote against 227. "Everyone agrees that bilingual education can be improved," he said. "But the Unz initiative is a sledge hammer approach and it's wrong."

In the beginning of the fight over Proposition 187, the initiative that called for restricting access of undocumented immigrants and their children to various social and educational services, there was also higher than expected support in the polls among Latinos. But that support greatly eroded by election day because of what many perceived as the anti-immigrant tone of the campaign. Opponents of 227 are banking that history will repeat itself, although 187 was easily passed but has been tied up in court ever since.

"It's dump on Latino time again," said Antonia Hernandez, the executive director and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Although Unz admits that some of the initiative's supporters are no doubt anti-immigrant, he said that as the grandson of immigrants from Eastern Europe, he himself is not. Indeed, he never fails to remind people that he marched against Proposition 187.

"This is about education," he said, "and getting rid of a system that absolutely does not work."

At one time, Mrs. Espinoza might have agreed with Unz, but that was before she did something he has never done.

She went to visit a bilingual education class.

"I saw that the kids were raising their hands a lot because they understood more because a lot of the class was in Spanish," she said. "I can't imagine how hard it would be if it was all in English. The kids will learn English but it takes time."

Mrs. Espinoza started tutoring the children in her neighborhood in this small city 35 miles east of Los Angeles in 1991 to give them an alternative to gangs. She turned her two-car garage into a classroom with computers, books and banners congratulating the latest member of "Rosie's Garage" to make the honor roll at the local public school.

Eduardo Garcia, 13, has been going to "Rosie's" almost from the beginning. He is in seventh grade in all-English language classes after spending three years in bilingual classes. He moved to the United States from Mexico with his mother when he was 11 months old and his family speaks Spanish at home, although his mother, Maura Garcia, 35, is taking English classes.

Mrs. Garcia said Eduardo is doing well in school, but his 9-year-old brother, Gabriel, is struggling because, she said, he has never been in bilingual classes.

"He speaks very well," Mrs. Garcia said of Gabriel, "but he has trouble with reading and writing."

Eduardo said bilingual education helped him succeed in school and he does not want to see Proposition 227 passed.

"I don't think that's really smart," he said. "After I got out of bilingual education, I could understand more. I want other kids to have what I had."

Hanging above his head was a banner: "Congratulations Eduardo Garcia Honor Roll 1st Quarter."