San Francisco Examiner

Sunday, April 26, 1998

No on 227: Anti-Bilingual Measure Promises Bureaucratic Chaos By JEFF ZORN

UNFLATTERINGLY, Ron Unz's Proposition 227 ( "English for the Children" ) recalls nothing so much as the health care proposal floated at the beginning of the Clinton presidency.

Privately, with little public input from patients, doctors and other professionals, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ira Magaziner redesigned health care delivery for the United States. Their plan would have dismantled everything good in the system and led to a succession of bureaucratic nightmares.

Similarly, Palo Alto software mogul Ron Unz sat down after his disastrous run for the governorship and worked out a radical proposal with little apparent input from teachers, language specialists and other professionals. He wants to end bilingual education in California. Like Clinton's scheme, the Unz plan plays out in detail as the starting point for failure and bureaucratic chaos.

You see this clearly when you consider the near educational future if Proposition 227 passes in June.

Right off, California's schools will be given less than three months to devise and implement from scratch a one-year program of "sheltered English immersion" for 1,380,000 students with limited English proficiency.

For these classes, Prop. 227 encourages local schools to mix children who vary in age, academic ability and cultural background. Five-year-old Chinese speakers and 7-year-old Farsi speakers would be tossed in with 9-year-old Russian and 11-year-old Spanish speakers in a program cobbled together over the summer. Does this make any sense?

After the year of English-language guidance, all the children would be placed in English-only classrooms. They would receive no further help through their first language. Their teachers would be forbidden to support a lesson by referring to any language besides English.

(We assume this excludes place names like, for example, San Francisco and Los Angeles.)

The proposition would allow for waivers into classes taught (even in small part) in a language besides English. A parent or guardian would have to apply at the school, and if 20 or more students at the same grade level receive the waiver, the school would offer an alternative class or allow a transfer to another school that has such a class.

So the school year starts, and parents, many of them non-English-speakers, would come beckoning for a waiver. Regardless of their wishes, their children would begin English-only class work for 30 days.

At that point, the assessment of waiver requests would begin, case by cumbersome, emotion-laden, politically charged case.

The requests would get processed by principals and other staff members and then reviewed and approved by the local school superintendent. Then some number of the waiver applicants would move out of the English-only classes into some other program. Serious planning would be impossible, as the final number of kids admitted into each program would not be determined until, when? December?

Settled into their chosen program for the remainder of the school year, the children wishing to continue would then go through another 30-day English-only immersion the following fall before having their waiver requests reviewed. Failing miserably for a month at the beginning of school would be a necessary condition for getting the program that students and their parents wanted all along.

However much you have been stirred up by stories of kids "segregated" in bilingual classes by a nefarious "bilingual lobby," read the details of Prop. 227 and find out why the overwhelming majority of California's teachers and school associations oppose it, even those who generally disfavor bilingual education as it is presently practiced.

Let's keep the debate going, options alive, data pouring in. Defeat Unz's quirky, heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all program. We can do a lot better for immigrant children needing our best efforts.

Examiner contributor Jeff Zorn, a San Francisco writer, teaches English at Santa Clara University.