San Jose Mercury News

October 3, 1997

Editorial: State Republicans speak divisively

The California Republican Party views bilingual education as a dismal failure. They think immigrant children will do just fine if not better with the sink or swim approach to learning English. But the party's decision to back a measure that would gut bilingual programs was poorly timed and demonstrated little patience for thoughtful, constructive debate.

The English for the Children ballot initiative, crafted by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Santa Ana schoolteacher, proposes that virtually all instruction be provided in English, regardless of a student's fluency. "Sheltered immersion" classes taught in English but tailored to students with limited proficiency would be offered on a temporary basis, but students would be mainstreamed within a year.

Schools could mix students of different ages and language backgrounds in one classroom as long as their mastery of English was similar. The measure also calls for a $50 million annual appropriation for community agencies to offer adult English classes.

There was no pressing need for the party to endorse the measure at its convention in Anaheim last Sunday. Delegates had every reason to allow the initiative to be debated on its own merits. In fact, party leaders urged them to table the endorsement vote, lest it sully their image. Hispanic members warned that acting hastily on the measure might further alienate Latino voters. They argued that a bill currently under consideration in the state Legislature would be a more appropriate forum for addressing bilingual reform.

The state's bilingual education law was established in 1976 to ensure that students whose first language is not English would be able to keep up with grade-level instruction. Parents have the right to decline any bilingual services that are offered to their children.

For some time, Californians of all stripes have expressed concerns about the existing program's efficacy. Some critics insist that too many students languish in bilingual classes and never master English. Others argue that many parents are unaware that they can opt out of a program if they choose. Another commonly held criticism is that these programs are no more than cash cows for teachers unions.

There is some truth to these criticisms, but the present debate is muddled. David Dolson, bilingual specialist for the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, makes a telling point -- which is that while some critics of bilingual education focus on academic matters, others do not.

"A lot of other people's issues have nothing to do with whether it works. Those are not pedagogical concerns. Those are political and social concerns," Dolson says.

We hope the fate of bilingual education is not decided in the poisonous, polarized atmosphere that led to the approval of Propositions 187 and 209. We hope that educational concerns can upstage politics. But the early Republican endorsement of this new ballot measure is not encouraging.