San Jose Mercury News

Sunday, May 10, 1998

Bilingual Education Has Failed
It's time to switch.

PROPOSITION 227, the "English for the Children" initiative, is likely to pass on June 2. A successful legal challenge is improbable; the Clinton administration admits the measure is constitutional and in accordance with federal law.

What will happen when school starts in September?

Limited-English children will be placed in intensive English programs, then transferred to regular classes once they've learned enough English to handle school work in English. This will take probably just a few months for the average kindergartner.

This is the path followed in virtually every other major nation with large numbers of immigrant children.

Most bilingual teachers will be teaching the same students in the same classrooms at the same schools -- but teaching them primarily in English instead of Spanish.

They may use children's native language some of the time, as long as the "overwhelming majority of the instruction" is in English. (Regular foreign language programs would be unaffected.)

Parents could seek waivers if they preferred bilingual education, or other alternatives to English immersion, for their children. For example, non-English-speaking children who enter California schools at the age of 13 or 14 might benefit from being taught academic subjects in their native language while they learned English over several years.

Under Prop. 227, we would expect a limited number of bilingual programs to survive in California, but as voluntary magnet schools, concentrating the personnel and resources needed to effectively implement their difficult curriculum.

"Dual" or "two-way" immersion schools, such as the River Glen School in San Jose Unified, might continue largely unchanged. These programs -- popular with upper-middle-class families -- mix native-English and native-Spanish speakers who are immersed in a nearly-all-Spanish curriculum in kindergarten, with English gradually introduced in later grades. Occasionally such a program combines English-speaking with Chinese-speaking students.

Proposition 227 exempts students who already know English; parents of the Spanish-speaking students can apply for a waiver. So long as enrollment is truly voluntary and the Spanish-speaking students benefit educationally, there would be little problem receiving waivers. One minor change is that the first 30 days of each school year would have to be taught primarily in English.

By reducing the number of special programs and moving students rapidly to English, Proposition 227 should save hundreds of millions of dollars each year, which could be spent on more textbooks, newer computers and other needs.

The initiative allocates $50 million a year -- a small fraction of the likely savings -- to fund adult English literacy programs. If immigrant parents improve their English skills, they can better help their children with their homework, and the entire family can learn English together.

Bilingual education began some 30 years ago as a well-intentioned experiment. It is time to admit that the experiment has failed, and switch our schools to the system used successfully in most of the rest of the world.

Ron Unz, a software entrepreneur in Palo Alto, chairs the "English for the Children" campaign.