San Jose Mercury News

Sunday, May 10, 1998

The Trouble with Prop. 227

BILINGUAL education in California is broken. But Proposition 227, Ron Unz's "English for the Children" initiative, is the wrong fix.

Proposition 227 asks voters to establish one strategy: intensive "sheltered English immersion" for students with minimal English. It provides that "normally" these students will spend one year in such classes, then be moved into mainstream instruction if they have a "good working knowledge of English."

Parents could seek waivers to move their children into bilingual classes after 30 days of English immersion. In "Another View" below, Unz says waivers will be readily available. But the initiative itself conditions waivers for children under 10 on "special needs," a provision that could make them difficult to obtain.

California has fallen into a bad habit of trying to legislate the details of education, insurance, environmental safety and other complex, technical subjects through the initiative process. Too often, such initiatives are approved on the basis of simplistic slogans, establishing laws that are difficult to interpret and apply.

Nobody knows one single best way to teach in Calexico for a newly arrived Mexican fourth grader and in Mendocino for an American-born Spanish-speaking kindergartner and in San Jose for Mexican, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Bosnian, Chinese, Filipino and Russian students of all ages and backgrounds.

Yet California got into this mess by mandating a one-size-fits-all approach: Teaching students in their native languages until they reach English proficiency. The bilingual education law expired in 1987, but the state education department continued to enforce it. For years, the bilingual education lobby and Latino legislators blocked reform bills, refusing to allow local flexibility or require accountability.

Last month, 11 years after the bilingual education law expired, the state board of education decided that districts don't need state waivers to teach all students in English.

Last week, the Legislature passed a bill that lets districts decide how to teach students with limited English proficiency, and requires proof they're making progress. Gov. Pete Wilson compares it to last-minute efforts in 1978 to stop Proposition 13. He hasn't said whether he'll sign the new bill.

If "English for the Children" hadn't qualified for the ballot, would anything have changed? Probably not. The fact that Proposition 227 is running at 70 percent "yes" in the polls, and even getting 60 percent support among Latino voters, reflects a colossal failure by educators and political leaders to take action when they had the chance.

The existing system is inconsistent and often ineffective: While all students learn to speak English, many remain weak in reading and writing skills. Only 6.4 percent annually reach full English proficiency.

Bilingual education has been required where there are enough students speaking the same language at the same grade level. Usually these are Spanish-speaking elementary students. Some programs try to maintain students' first language, moving slowly to English-only instruction by fifth or sixth grade. Others use more English in kindergarten and first grade, aiming for a quick transition.

But statewide, most students with limited English are taught in mainstream English-only classrooms with a few hours a week of special English or native-language instruction to keep them afloat.

So-called sheltered English immersion -- the approach mandated by 227 -- is now used most often for middle and high school students, rarely in early elementary school.

The state hasn't tracked the progress of students trying to learn English. Only a few districts that got waivers to teach in English had to show student achievement; others merely had to comply with regulations, regardless of results.

It's clear that bilingual education can work well with qualified bilingual teachers, committed parents, a strong academic curriculum and consistent attention to student achievement. One model has proved very popular with parents: Dual or two-way immersion schools where English-only and limited English students learn each other's languages together.

Unfortunately, that's not the norm. Lacking enough qualified bilingual teachers to do it well, many schools do it poorly, often relying on bilingual aides with little education and training, sometimes offering a watered-down curriculum.

But Proposition 227 won't wipe out only ineffective bilingual programs. It also will make it difficult or impossible to offer high-quality bilingual education. (Bilingual magnet schools might survive by becoming charter schools, exempt from the education code, including Proposition 227.)

The initiative will deny local school boards the right to decide what makes sense for local students, and limit parents' right to decide what makes sense for their kids.

We understand the frustration that's made Proposition 227 so popular. But it's not a good law, and it's not a good way to change the law. Now that we've finally got local control, and the prospect of accountability, why adopt another one-size-fits-all teaching method?