San Francisco Examiner

Tuesday, April 28, 1998

No on 227: Too Broad, Too Inflexible

Any school board member or other elected official or public school teacher or administrator who willfully and repeatedly refuses to implement the terms of this statute by providing such an English-language educational option at an available public school to a California school child may be held personally liable for fees and actual damages by the child's parents or legal guardian.

- From the Unz Initiative

The title on the June 2 ballot is: "English Language Education for Immigrant Children Initiative." It would have voters believe the measure will make learning English easier for immigrant children. Supporters claim it will give parents more choices in how their children learn English.

But a close reading of the actual text suggests its real purpose is to abolish bilingual education - and to give Republicans yet another wedge issue, after their successful anti-immigrant and anti-affirmative action campaigns, intended to draw conservative voters to the polls.

The goal sounds simple: "All children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English."

Contradicting the experience of thousands of immigrant children, the initiative states that "young immigrant children can easily acquire full fluency in a new language, such as English, if they are heavily exposed to that language in the classroom at an early age."

Octavio Sifuentes, now a librarian at Ventura College in southern California, remembers the language-based discrimination he experienced as a teenage Mexican student in California - before the federal courts mandated bilingual education. School officials at St. Mary's in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights put him in the seventh grade.

"For the first year, I just looked around," Sifuentes remembers. "In class I felt really bad, because I just couldn't understand what they were saying. All I could do was math, which I learned in school in Mexico. So they just gave me math problems to do all day. No one would or could talk to me. I was a lost and lonely kid."

Under the initiative, children who don't speak English would be herded into a one-year "sheltered English immersion" class where "all classroom instruction is in English, with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language." All other subjects have a secondary priority.

No research supports the premise of the one-year, English-only approach. The definitive study of various methods of bilingual instruction was produced by Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier of George Mason University in September 1995. For non-English speakers, it says, academic achievement depends on three factors in English and in core subjects.

* Academic instruction in the student's first language for as long as possible, with English-language instruction during the second part of the day.

* A full academic curriculum.

* English-speaking students integrated into the classroom in a supportive environment, treating bilingual education as a gifted program for all students.

Learning English takes more than a year, the study found, and can take three years or more.

Far from widening options for poor and immigrant parents, the English Language Initiative would make the sheltered English immersion process mandatory. Any parent wanting their child taught in a bilingual class must go in person to the school to ask for a waiver. A school district can deny waivers for any reason.

If the parents of fewer than 20 students demand waivers, for example, a school is not required to provide a bilingual class. This means that the poorest parents have to find other, more distant, schools and somehow get their children there.

Undocumented parents are unlikely to ask for waivers at all.

These hurdles effectively deny low-income immigrant families the right to choose the English-learning method for their children.

"The initiative eliminates school and parental advisory committees which now exist," explains Dolores Sanchez, legislative representative for the California Federation of Teachers. "Right now, parents have a choice about the programs used to teach their children, which the initiative takes away."

A teacher who occasionally answers a child's question in Spanish could be sued for damages and lawyers' fees.

"What would this mean for maintaining a relationship of trust between teachers and students?" Sanchez asks.

David Bacon, an associate editor with Pacific News Service in San Francisco, writes frequently on immigration issues.