San Diego Union-Tribune

Tuesday, April 21, 1998

Democracy and Bilingual Education

Bilingual education has become one of the most hotly debated topics on the current political landscape.

On April 1, a legislative Appropriations Committee voted 11-5 to send SB 6 by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, to a vote of the full Assembly. Many political analysts say that the bill was spurred on by the treat of Proposition 227, which would virtually eliminate bilingual education. Others point to a recent ruling by Judge Robert Robie in Superior Court in Sacramento that decreed that school district "waivers" to implement alternative types of programs were unnecessary, since the legislation governing bilingual education had expired in 1987.

The vote to push the Alpert bill forward was split across party lines, with only Democrats voting against it along with four Republicans. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa called the bill a compromise. It provides for local control over decisions regarding the best programs for educating one out of every four California public school student who is learning English, while requiring accountability to ensure their academic achievement through sound program implementation.

While voters, and especially the education community, watch the debate over bilingual education in the media and among politicians, there is an important lesson to be learned about ethnic relations in a democracy. Sentiments about immigration, languages and cultures run very deep among all groups in society. Values about the use of English and other languages in the schools strike a chord about patriotism or what it means to be an American. Many believe the English language is the glue that holds an ethnically diverse community together.

On the other hand, ethnic minorities, Hispanics in particular, see any law that restricts the free use of other languages in public schools as a threat to both their cultural identity and their economic well-being. Bilingualism is a resource that enhance opportunities within the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking communities in the United States and globally.

 Moreover, a high-quality education is essential for advancement. Bilingual education addresses both these concerns. Having seen the popular vote often favor policies that are detrimental to their interests, minority groups look to legislation and the courts to protect their rights to self-determination and equal opportunity in all aspects of civic life, including education.

Opponents of bilingual education may dismiss the actions of the Legislature as irrelevant, considering that whatever compromises made to enact a bill can be overturned by a majority vote on Proposition 227. Many may feel that the opinions expressed in the initiative process represent "the will of the people."

The Founding Fathers established a government, including the executive, legislative and the judiciary branches, with a system of checks and balances. The authors of the Constitution, especially James Madison, warned that the majority could become indifferent to the concerns of the minority, endangering the possibility that in a heterogeneous community, the majority would not represent all competing interests.

Californians should heed the lessons learned by the fact that Proposition 187 has been declared unconstitutional. The courts must rule based on established law whether or not the interests of minority groups are being violated by any new laws that are enacted, whether by legislation or through the initiative process. Experts in educational law have raised questions about Proposition 227's constitutionality, based on the provisions that guarantee language-minority students the right to a "meaningful and effective" education in the 1974 Lau vs. Nichols Supreme Court decision.

As an ethnically diverse population in our state, we must learn to live together. This means that we must struggle with practical realities of how we compromise and cooperate with each other to improve education for all our children, regardless of what language they speak and what cultural values they hold dear.

If the majority is seen as arbitrary and uncompromising in considering the wishes and concerns of the minority, it will harm ethnic relations and poison the well of the democratic process for all of us. The true glue that holds us together as a nation is not English. Rather, it is a respect for democracy that balances the interests of the whole community to provide equal opportunity for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" so we can advance as a united people.
Jill Kerper Mora is an assistant professor of teacher education at San Diego State University specializing in preparing teacher candidates for English-language-development classroom assignments.