New York Times

Wednesday, May 27, 1998

California Townsfolk Speak Different Languages Over Education

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- On the night that this city's school board decided whether to end a quarter-century of bilingual education, more than 600 people showed up. It was the largest board meeting that anyone could recall. It was also the most emotional.

The board's five members, haunted by accusations that the proposal before them amounted to "ethnic cleansing," posted six police officers in the auditorium.

And when it finally came time for the vote, after three hours of anguished pleas from all sides, several dozen proponents of bilingual education moved within a few feet of the board members and stared them down. But the board unanimously approved the proposal, calling for a system that, beginning in September, would put the district's many Spanish-speaking children into classes where English takes precedence.

"Then the police walked us back to our cars," Fred Rifkin, the board's president, said. "It was very tense."

Four months after that mid-January meeting, it is still very tense -- not just in Santa Barbara, but in much of California. On June 2, California voters will decide whether to do statewide what Santa Barbara has done: dismantle bilingual education, by approving the sweeping ballot initiative known as Proposition 227.

The debate in this city is a microcosm of the complex politics swirling around Proposition 227, and a painful preview of the fallout in a racially, ethnically and economically diverse community.

"This is a multi-layered debate," said Robert Pohl, an educational consultant who is a member of the school board in an interview. "It's about politics. It's about culture. It's about power. It's about disenfranchisement. And it's about what is the purpose and responsibility of the school system."

Polls suggest that 227 will easily pass. Coming on the heels of initiatives that sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants and that ended affirmative action in public employment and university admissions, it has become the latest lightning rod in a state with a burgeoning non-white population.

Santa Barbara is a place where the lightning struck early and with particular force.

The board's fiercest advocate for ending bilingual education was Alan Ebenstein, an affluent, aspiring politician. His efforts won him local news media attention and the favor of fellow Republicans, including Ron Unz, an affluent, aspiring politician from Northern California who is the principal proponent of Proposition 227. Ebenstein is now running for the State Assembly with Unz's endorsement.

On the other side, the bilingual debate attracted the local chapter of the NAACP, which seized the occasion to denounce institutional racism and the neglect of African-Americans in Santa Barbara's schools.

The debate drew a woman upset that the city had a day honoring Hispanic people in general but not Mexican-Americans in particular, and it caught the attention of students and faculty members from the University of California at Santa Barbara, who complained that diversity was under siege.

Even if the debate were just about the best way to teach children English, it would be no cake walk.

Proponents of bilingual education point to studies suggesting that, in the long run, children learn best if allowed to take instruction in their native language while gradually incorporating English into lessons. Opponents cite the poor standardized test scores and low college enrollment of many children in bilingual programs as evidence that they do not work.

If neither side wants to give an inch, it is partly because the well-being of children is in the balance. As a bilingual education teacher told the school board in January, "You are playing with the very lives -- the futures -- of our children."

School districts in California are required to provide instruction to children in their primary languages until teachers deem them suitably proficient in English.

While many districts have been unable to provide that -- only 30 percent of the 1.4 million children in the state with limited English proficiency are actually enrolled in bilingual education -- others, including Santa Barbara, have put thousands of children in Spanish-language classes and often kept them there for five years or longer.

Santa Barbara is among a handful of districts that eventually sought and received state permission to end bilingual programs. Proposition 227 would essentially require all districts to do so. Under its mandate, most students who speak limited English would get about a year of intensive instruction in the English language, then be put in general classrooms where teachers were forbidden to speak Spanish.

Santa Barbara's plan, which could be eclipsed by Proposition 227, is slightly different. It would immediately put students with limited English into general classrooms, but would call for Spanish-speaking teachers or teachers' aides to use little bits of Spanish as needed to help these children keep pace. It would also provide supplementary tutoring after school and during the summer for Spanish-speaking children.

Like the rest of California, Santa Barbara, a city of 90,000 residents, has experienced dramatic growth in its Hispanic population over the last two decades. Between 1980 and 1990, the last year for which an accurate racial and ethnic breakdown of the population is available, the percentage of Hispanic people rose to 31.5 from 22 percent.

Also like the rest of California, Santa Barbara embraces stark extremes of wealth, which is distributed unevenly between its non-Hispanic white and Hispanic residents, with the latter group providing much of the elbow grease that burnishes Santa Barbara's aura as an oceanside, mountain-crowned resort.

For a variety of reasons, including the use of private schools by some white families, the schools are more Hispanic than the city itself; about 53 percent of the students are Hispanic. At the elementary school level, over half of the roughly 4,000 Hispanic students who speak minimal English are enrolled in bilingual education.

Michael Caston, the district's superintendant, said the extra cost of that was negligible, but that he and several members of the popularly elected school board became increasingly concerned over the last two years about the poor academic performance of many children emerging from bilingual education.

Proponents of bilingual education in Santa Barbara suggested tinkering with the system by incorporating more English more rapidly into the kindergarten through third grades, but Caston and board members thought the statistics demanded more drastic action.

Ebenstein noted that fewer than 15 percent of eligible Hispanic students in Santa Barbara's high schools were taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a requirement for admission to many colleges, and that last year, not one student from bilingual programs scored higher than 1,000 out of a possible 1,600 on the S.A.T.

Ebenstein said he was also troubled by a Balkanization of Santa Barbara's elementary schools, non-Hispanic white students clustered in one set of classes, Hispanic students in another, and seldom did the twain meet.

"It's forced multi-generational English-speaking families out," Ebenstein said. "They don't want their kids to go to a school where half the kids speak Spanish. People want their children to have a happy, open learning experience."

As the board members began discussing the total abolition of bilingual programs last summer, the fact that all of them are non-Hispanic whites aroused suspicion.

Critics openly wondered if the board's mission was to stamp out the sounds of Spanish in Santa Barbara. Words like racism, oppression and even genocide were thrown around.

In an article published in a local newspaper, Pete Relis, a public school teacher, summoned the specter of ethnic cleansing. And at one board meeting, Rifkin said, a woman compared him to Adolf Hitler.

"Imagine being a Jew and hearing that," he said.

To be sure, there were many Hispanic educators, parents and community leaders who heartily endorsed the direction in which the board was heading, because they felt it would best serve the competitive standing of Hispanic children.

And many opponents of the board's plan also pressed their case on educational grounds. They said that the theory behind bilingual education could not be blamed for its failures, because the program had been shoddily implemented in Santa Barbara.

But the arguments also delved into what, if any, role the schools should play in preserving the culture of Hispanic people, whose presence in California predated that of English speakers.

The three children of Ruben and Maria Rey began school speaking only Spanish not because their parents did not know English, but because the couple made a cultural decision to raise them that way. The couple, vocal critics of the board's plan, said the schools should respect and celebrate that decision while also teaching their children English through bilingual programs.

Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, concurred that the point of bilingual education was not just the effective acquisition of English.

Referring to her sixth-grade son, she said: "He dreams in two languages and two worlds, and I wanted that to be cultivated." So she recently transferred him to a private school that would do so.

But several board members questioned whether it was reasonable to ask schools to give a level of consideration to Hispanic people that had not traditionally been given to other ethnic groups.

For some parents, frustration with the declining quality of California's schools was clearly at the root of their opposition to bilingual education, a symbol to them of misspent energy and flawed endeavors.

At the January school board meeting, one non-Hispanic white parent called bilingual education "the biggest factor in the downfall of education in this state," while another said it had driven his and many other middle-class families to private schools.

In the days before the board's vote, more than 300 Hispanic families boycotted the schools, sending their children to a community center instead. The morning after, some critics accused board members of having made up their minds in private sessions, and pressed unsuccessfully to have them criminally charged with violating the state's open-meetings law. They also launched a petition drive to recall Ebenstein's election to the board.

The board members said that they had forged ahead with their plan, even though Proposition 227 loomed, because the voter initiative could get tangled in legal challenges. The board members are split in their positions on the proposition.

Rifkin opposes the initiative, saying it deprives local districts of control. But Steve Forsell, another member, favors it, saying it would enable school districts elsewhere to follow Santa Barbara's lead without taking the heat.

"I don't know that other school boards in the state could stand up to that kind of abuse," he said.