Thursday, May 14, 1998
Voters who are concerned and frustrated about the state of bilingual education in California are in a good spot to do something about it. They can strike a blow for effective change by rejecting the one-size-fits-all scheme on the June 2 ballot, embracing instead new opportunities for local solutions to the problem.
The most urgent step is for voters to recognize that Proposition 227, the so-called Unz Initiative on bilingual education, is at its base an unnecessary gamble that we don't need to take.
Teaching English to schoolkids who don't know the language is a growing challenge in California. The system of state-mandated bilingual education that was supposed to handle that has largely failed; in response, voters are being asked to adopt an untested new "sink-or-swim" system outlined in Proposition 227.
Fortunately, we don't have to settle for that either-or choice. The state Board of Education earlier this year eliminated the requirement that all districts follow the old, failed system, opening the door for voters in local school districts to make their own decisions about how best to teach limited-English students. That was followed by legislative passage of a good new law that does more than reinforce local control; it actually demands that districts make their teaching work, and holds them accountable for doing that.
That law now sits on Gov. Pete Wilson's desk, awaiting approval. He should sign it promptly to let Californians know they have a far better solution available than Proposition 227. All four major candidates for governor -- including Republican Dan Lungren -- agree he ought to do that.
All four also oppose Proposition 227. It's a risky experiment, and the stakes -- the lives and futures of real kids -- are enormous.
The proposal sounds simple: Make all kids who aren't literate in English take one intensive year of instruction mainly in English and then, with rare exceptions, mainstream them into regular classes. But while that might work for some kids, it surely won't work for all -- and the initiative makes it a mandatory, one-size-fits-all plan that must be followed all over the state: in districts large or small, with huge minority populations or almost none, with programs that are now working or without any experience at all.
There is no good reason for voters to put that straitjacket on California's school districts.
The intensive, one-year immersion plan mandated in Proposition 227 is an unproven theory -- an experiment that proponent Ron Unz and his supporters want voters to apply to the real lives of the 1.4 million California kids who need help learning English. As a pilot program to be tested in a limited number of sites, the plan may be worth trying. But Unz and followers are too cocky for that. Based on a loose collection of stray facts, anecdotes and assumptions, Unz wants to make his home-brewed plan the law for everybody else -- and require a two-thirds legislative vote before it can be changed back if it's a failure.
Who stands to be hurt by that cavalier attitude? Children, that's who -- kids who need effective English instruction to open the door to their future. Those schoolchildren represent a tremendous potential asset for society if they learn how to learn and achieve their potential -- and they will become a huge burden if they don't.
That's too important to risk on the Proposition 227 experiment. The far superior plan is to let local districts be in charge of shaping plans that work for their kids, and then hold them accountable for doing that. Voters can say yes to that alternative by saying No to Proposition 227.