San Francisco Examiner

Thursday, March 12, 1998

Our Monolingual Nativists

IN JUNE, if early polls hold true, California voters are poised overwhelmingly to eliminate most forms of bilingual education in public schools with passage of the "English for the Children" initiative.

Educators are in a bind. On paper, we seem to have the ingredients for a successful public education campaign to oppose the measure put on the ballot by millionaire Ron Unz, a one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Bilingual education is sound educational policy supported by every linguistic research study ever conducted, proving that primary language instruction is the best way to ensure that non-English speaking students can learn English and achieve success in other studies.

If facts, reputable empiricism and accumulated years of teaching experience counted in politics, then the Unz initiative would be laughed off the ballot.

Unfortunately, the last laugh may be on us. Opponents of bilingual education, emboldened by the electoral successes of Propositions 187 and 209, have on their side a visceral philistinism seasoned with a dash of resurgent '90s racism.

They dismiss things like pluralism, research studies, facts and sound educational policy. The destruction of bilingual education represents a crowning jewel on the triple crown of modern political Know Nothingism.

This is not to suggest that educators should wallow in defeatism, roll over and let our opponents prevail without an old-fashioned political donnybrook.

It may be quixotic, but, even if irrationality is to prevail, we owe it to our students to let it be over our bloodied, battered, unbowed bodies.

The real issue for all educators - especially those of us who have been entrusted with the responsibility of running schools for the benefit of all students, not just the English speakers - is how we will respond if the English for the Children initiative does indeed pass.

How do people of decency and good conscience say "no" to laws repugnant to everything they know to be true and just, and when saying "no," even if they hope to preserve the integrity of a just society, comes at a great cost to themselves?

This issue represents a classic civil disobedience paradigm. It has historic precedents.

The response of the majority of judges, lawyers, doctors and educators in the South during the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s remains a source of national pride, while the collusion of similar professionals with Hitler's "final solution" remains a blot of national shame for the modern German nation.

So, when the moment of truth comes for educators, parents and citizens, how will we respond?

Examiner contributor Ken Gallegos is principal of Grattan Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District.