San Francisco Examiner

Friday, January 30, 1998

Bilingual Education: The Next Culture War

OVER THE past several decades, California has undergone an astonishing population growth. While some of that growth came from Americans moving here from other states, a significant portion came through immigration.

Depending on the state's economic health, immigration is viewed as either a good thing or a bad thing. That's how it's judged by popular sentiment.

Earlier this decade, when our economy was sucking air, immigration was considered a bad thing. That feeling led to the passage of Proposition 187, which sought to ban social services, including education, for undocumented immigrants.

Coming this June, there's a Son of 187, an initiative put forth by Ron Unz, a conservative Silicon Valley businessman who sought unsuccessfully the Republican gubernatorial nomination four years ago. Unz wants to abolish bilingual education in our public schools.

This newest cultural war once again exposes deep divisions in our society.

From early polls, it appears a vast majority of Californians support his proposed initiative, including most Latinos who were surveyed - a finding that defies the conventional political wisdom.

Bilingual programs affect Latinos more than any other ethnic group in the state. The assumption is that Latinos would resist abolition of programs that are targeted for them.

Perhaps as the anti-Unz campaign heats up, the Latino voting preference will change.

The Unz initiative plucks at the same anti-immigrant heartstrings that Prop. 187 did. While appearing pristine on the surface, the proposal validates the feeling among many of us, regardless of political persuasion, that immigrants ought to learn English. The argument is over how they learn it.

Bilingual programs in our schools have been a fixture for about two decades following a Supreme Court ruling on a case brought by a Chinese American family in San Francisco.

The idea of bilingual education in a state with such dramatically changing demographics makes sense. If children of immigrants enter public schools with little or no English ability, they need to be taught the language while learning other subjects.

Ideally, the other subjects would be taught using both English and the native languages of the immigrants so they don't fall behind, while they are learning English in a separate class.

Critics say bilingual programs aren't effective at teaching English well or quickly.

Some bilingual programs may not be as effective as they ought to be. Some may have nurtured a self-interested and protective bureaucracy. If so, they should be reformed and made to balance bilingual teaching in core subjects with classes immersing students in English.

The Unz proposal isn't the kind of reform that bilingual programs need. His is an assault weapon approach. He would place all English-deficient students under the age of 10 in English immersion classes for one year, while holding back instruction in other subjects. His proposal doesn't address children 10 years and older who aren't proficient in English.

A clue to Unz's motives is the provision that requires parents who want an exemption from English immersion classes to request it in person. That requirement seems aimed at intimidating parents who might not have proper residency documentation.

There is fear among some English speakers that Spanish or other foreign tongues may compete with English. But English stands powerful as an international language of diplomacy and business. Most immigrants realize they must learn some English to succeed in America.

But they shouldn't be expected to shed their core cultural identity.

William Wong is an independent journalist and Examiner columnist.