Riverside Press-Enterprise

Friday, July 17, 1998

In Any Language, Time To Start

Prop. 227, California's bilingual education initiative, was writing on the wall. Well before the June primary, it had broad and obvious groundswell support. It became one of the most successful initiatives in California history, winning 61 percent of the vote. What was not written on the wall was what would happen after the election. For the last hundred-plus ballot propositions, going back more than a decade, Californians have had a tendency to approve controversial measures in decisive fashion, only to see them disappear into the courts the way paper goes into a shredder. The best to be hoped for was eventually to get back a couple of useful pieces.

The inevitable appeal of Prop. 227 came quickly. The surprise is that, just as quickly, a federal judge in San Francisco has refused to intervene, on grounds that full-immersion instruction in English is a valid approach to education and, besides, his court is not "a supreme Board of Education. The voters expressed their policy preference."

So: The clock continues to tick down to an August 2 launch date for ending bilingual education. It really is time, then, to move on to the next stage.

The goal should not be any different than it has been: Helping young people to learn well and in timely fashion. In large measure, what's different about Prop. 227 is that it redefines what's timely. It prescribes a general transition phase of one year, with certain exceptions for youngsters under 10 and those clearly needing special help.

Past studies have held that it takes several years for students to make the jump to mainstream English studies. This is not learning how to talk to a shop clerk or bank teller, it's learning how to express one's self with academic precision. There's a big difference between ordering a burger and taking the SAT test, and one of the concerns in educational circles is that the electorate may have given short shrift to that distinction.

But a good faith effort is now called for to make this work. The schools bring two important assets to the task - a good measure of local discretion about how to make it work, and the ingenuity of teachers.

A third asset must be brought to bear here, too, and it's the same one needed to help make an improvement in statewide test scores. Schools can't make this happen without the dedication of families to support the effort. In a wider ripple, school communities, from PTAs outward, have to do what they can to help, too. Pupils speaking literally scores of languages and dialects are part of this matrix: Some 1.4 million of total of 5.6 million students are not capable in English. If they're above the second grade, most don't enjoy the benefits of class size reduction, either: They're in classes of 31, 32, 33, with one teacher and perhaps an aide responsible for everyone's progress.

There should be no delusions about this. Voting won't make it so. In the post-bilingual world, there's real work to do. The court has now affirmed that it's time to get on with it.