San Diego Union-Tribune

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

No Bilingual Mandate
Prop. 227 would take away local control

Of the nine statewide propositions on the June ballot, none matches the emotional intensity of Proposition 227, which would essentially scrap bilingual education in public schools.

Many people, particularly Latino parents, are dissatisfied with the current bilingual system, which is designed to gradually transition students who speak little or no English into regular classrooms.

Why, they rightly wonder, are these students being taught in their native language for as long as six or seven years? Why do some students receive a high school diploma without gaining a working knowledge of English? And why, if traditional bilingual instruction is effective, are so many Latino students dropping out of school?

The truth is that some bilingual education programs are doing a poor job of teaching kids the language they need in order to succeed in this society. Moreover, there is plenty of room for improvement even in those programs that appear to be working.

But this does not mean voters should embrace Proposition 227, which would all but eliminate traditional bilingual education programs and replace them with a mandated "sheltered immersion" approach, which essentially entails teaching children all subjects in English.

The measure, financed by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, flows from a false premise.

It brands the current system a failure because language barriers persist in California schools. Yet fewer than one-third of the 1.3 million non-English-speaking students are enrolled in bilingual programs.

Proposition 227's solution is a state-mandated continuity. It would require that all students who do not speak English be placed in a sheltered immersion program for one year, during which they would be taught almost exclusively in English. Unhappy parents could request native-language instruction for their children. But they could do so only after meeting with the principal, getting permission from school authorities, and then only if there were at least 19 other students at that grade level to fill a bilingual class. Otherwise, they would have to seek a transfer to another school where bilingual education were available.

This top-down approach is no less onerous than the state Department of Education's dictating how bilingual in-struction should be done in each school district. Sheltered English immersion may be a splendid teaching strategy. But districts with successful bilingual programs should be able to continue doing what is in the best interests of their students. Proposition 227 would deprive them of this flexibility.

San Diego Unified is a case in point. Superintendent-designate Alan Bersin is spearheading a standards-based curriculum to enhance the district's ability to hasten the transition of non-English-speaking students into regular classes. Bersin favors allowing individual schools to tailor their programs to fit their students. If the Unz initiative passes, however, the city schools will have only one option -- sheltered English immersion. Proposition 227 is a paradox. It prompted the state Board of Education to give schools the freedom to devise varied programs of language instruction. Yet it would have Sacramento dictate the manner of instruction. We urge a NO vote on this simplistic solution to a complex problem.