Stockton Record

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

227 Wrong Fix for What Ails Bilingual Ed

The debate over two languages -- English and Spanish -- is as old as California itself. In 1849, the state Constitution was published in both, and a few decades later the nation's first "English only" provisions were part of a revision. More recently, voters approved Prop. 63 by a 3-to-1 margin, declaring English as the official language of government in California.

We're at it again with the June 2 primary, where Proposition 227 -- known in some corners as the "English for the Children" initiative and in others as the "Unz initiative," named after Silicon Valley software millionaire Ron Unz -- is the most talked-about ballot item.

With 3.2 million children across the United States enrolled in bilingual-education classes, Prop. 227 is being watched nationally. Some have declared it the flashpoint in an undeclared cultural war. It has the potential to be divisive, with the initiative's raging political rhetoric obscuring a single, fundamental key:

Is it good for the children?

We would agree with the New York Times assessment that there is great "frustration over the failure of bilingual education for many children ... the status quo in many California schools is certainly depressing."

Proposition 227 is not the answer
Bilingual education, in most cases, is not the success it was designed to be in California, and the state Legislature gets most of the blame for not taking care of business. In 1987, a stalemate of ideologies in Sacramento caused the state's bilingual-education law to lapse. Since then, with only federal court rulings to guide them, the state's 999 school districts have developed -- or failed to develop -- 999 ways of dealing with bilingual ed.

Into that void comes Prop. 227, leading in recent polls by a comfortable margin (including nearly half of the Latino voters surveyed). California voters, once again, are on the verge of making law.

But this initiative is not the right solution for the problem. Its broad-brush approach will throw out good bilingual programs --including some wonderful classroom efforts in Stockton Unified -- along with the bad, partly because the initiative's waiver system is too complex and restrictive.

Among its many unworkable parts:

* As a statewide mandate, it would end local control. Parents would have no say in this important area of their children's education. Teachers, those front-line experts often left out of educational equations, need to be involved in making the decisions on what's best for their classrooms and local administrators as well. Case in point: Stockton's Cleveland Elementary School, where the staff has had to adjust language instruction -- from Spanish to Vietnamese to Cambodian -- three times in recent years. That kind of flexibility would be difficult under 227.

* It would also mean that teachers in tiny, rural districts like Yreka or Arcata would try to implement the same program as those in the gigantic Los Angeles Unified School District.

* Prop. 227 also has some off-the-wall provisions. It allows English-language learners of different ages to be taught together, regardless of cultural backgrounds or academic abilities. Children learn in different ways and at different speeds; Unz doesn't allow for that.

* Probably the most controversial provision is at the initiative's heart: one year of what's described as "sheltered English immersion" for children -- no matter what their grade level -- who are English learners. It begs the question of what to do with those tens of thousands of students who simply aren't ready for a mainstream English classroom in one year.

* Other problems include the referendum's timing and the liability factor. If it passes June 2, California school districts have only 60 days (Aug. 2) to get ready for implementation. While we believe strongly in accountability, the provision that allows for direct legal action against teachers and administrators hardly builds the partnership needed to be most beneficial for children. Kids have enough inconsistency in their lives; mom and dad should be working in harmony with educators.

* Finally and ironically, the Unz initiative fails to provide for any kind of measuring stick for success. Its failure to incorporate accountability is reason enough to vote against it.

Bilingual ed in need of reform
We should pause at this point and reflect on the dismal experiment known as bilingual education and ask, once again, Is it good for the children?

Sadly, the answer is no. It has been an infliction on California students of every hue and background since its inception. In San Joaquin County, we need look no further than the Asian-American experience of the last two decades to find success stories involving students who never had bilingual ed.

Bilingual ed has been characterized as "a classic example of an experiment that was begun with the best of humanitarian intentions but has turned out to be terribly wrongheaded." When enacted in 1968, the Bilingual Education Act was a modest, $7.5 million program intended to help Mexican-Americans learn English. Today, it is an education industry far exceeding its original mission and it has resulted in the extended segregation of nonEnglish-speaking students.

Even the state Board of Education, in reaction to the Unz initiative, dropped its bilingual-ed requirements last month.

The concept has had enough time -- 30 years -- to prove itself. The noble experiment has failed for many reasons: a shortage of trained bilingual teachers, a mish-mash of objectives and unclear criteria for moving students into the English-only mainstream.

If nothing else, Unz has served as a catalyst for the bilingual debate -- forcing Californians to decide what lawmakers have avoided. No matter what some may say, the Prop. 227 is not racist in nature. But it is dysfunctional. It's not even a Band-Aid for an open sore. We're afraid it is merely a second, newer, deeper wound.

Needs of children must unite us
Ultimately, creation of the Unz initiative can be blamed on a failure in leadership. It is yet another instance in which the real problem -- and the Legislature's failure to deal with it -- is met by a solution that goes too far.

This week, Gov. Pete Wilson made matters worse, vetoing a long-overdue bilingual-education reform bill sponsored by state Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego. It contained two crucial elements missing in 227: the opportunity for local school districts to tailor their programs and accountability guidelines.

As he was rejecting the bipartisan measure, Wilson also endorsed the Unz initiative. In a sign of how confusing all this is, Ron Unz was unimpressed with the governor's support and all but said "thanks, but no thanks."

The picture that emerges is murky. While the initiative is likely to pass, it will no doubt be appealed -- like many initiatives before it -- to the courts.

What may ultimately be more important is not whether it passes, but how. Without Latino support, a victory for "English for the Children" could be a victory for a wider gap of mistrust between cultural groups.

All parents want their children to succeed in school and in society. That's what unites us. We are not divided in our goals for children -- Latino and nonLatino. As we get closer to June 2, let's keep what's best for the children in the forefront of our thinking.