USA Today

Wednesday, May 27, 1998

Californians Likely to End Bilingual Ed

LOS ANGELES -- At Cahuenga Elementary School, in the heart of Los Angeles' Koreatown, it's possible to grasp a piece of the complicated, increasingly tattered tapestry called bilingual education.

In some classrooms, Spanish-speaking children are being taught mostly in Spanish. In others, Korean-speaking children are being taught mostly in Korean. This is called ``primary-language instruction.''

Down the hall, some Korean-speakers and a sprinkling of children who speak other languages are being taught half in Korean and half in English. This is called ``two-way immersion.''

And all the rest -- English-speaking children and kids who speak languages other than Spanish or Korean -- are being taught in English. This is called ``mainstream education.''

Only the primary-language classes are officially considered bilingual classes, even though they're mostly in one language. But the goal for all is the same: To teach children English and at the same time keep them current with the core curriculum: reading, writing and arithmetic.

But there is no clear, unassailable evidence to prove whether these programs succeed or fail in this goal, despite 30 years of experimentation and research.

Voters appear ready to sweep all of it away. Proposition 227 on the ballot next Tuesday in California proposes to dismantle bilingual education by requiring that all instruction in public schools be in English only.

Children with limited English skills would get one year of intensive English instruction before being placed in English-only classrooms.

The latest polls show the measure is supported by about 65% of voters, including Asians and Hispanics. If it passes, California would be the first state to ban bilingual education by voter referendum.

California is the state with the most children with limited English skills -- about 1.4 million, or 25% of the state's school population and nearly half of all non-English-speaking kids in the USA.

Whatever the outcome of the vote on 227, the measure's impact is likely to be felt in states -- such as Texas, New York and Illinois -- where there are large numbers of immigrants and disenchantment with bilingual education is growing.

Supporters of 227 say California's bilingual education system must be dumped because it has produced low test scores, high dropout rates and tens of thousands of children who can't fully function in English.

``The idea that children best learn English by teaching them only in Spanish doesn't have a lot of evidence to support it,'' says Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who wrote 227. ``No other country in the world uses this system.''

Opponents include nearly all political, educational and civil rights leaders except Gov. Pete Wilson and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

The initiative ``restricts local control, so a district with a successful program has to abandon it -- and even Unz agrees there are some successful programs,'' says Tom Saenz, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a leading opponent.

The most alarmed opponents predict widespread chaos in schools, demoralized children, accelerating dropout rates, even increased gang activity if 227 passes.

``When children are forced to do something they're not ready to do, they shut down and stop doing it, so rather than cause them to speak more English, they'll speak less,'' predicts Adeline Shoji, bilingual-education coordinator at Cahuenga School.

A major element of the system is financial incentive. California school districts get extra state money for each child enrolled in a bilingual program. Also, a bilingual teacher typically gets a $5,000 a year bonus.

The cost of the system is in dispute. The state says bilingual education costs $320 million a year. Opponents say it costs only $100 million a year.

About 130 languages are spoken among California's 5.4 million schoolchildren, but about 80% with limited English are Spanish-speakers. Consequently, most bilingual programs here are in Spanish. A few are in Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese.

According to state figures, about 30% of the limited-English children in California are segregated in early grades and taught everything in their home language. Over a period of three to five years, they are introduced to English.

``You begin teaching them in the language they already know and as they become more literate in their primary language, they become more literate in English because the reading and writing skills are the same,'' says Paul Garcia, a bilingual-education researcher for Fresno schools.

Unz, 36, a former gubernatorial candidate who has no educational expertise nor children in schools, employs a simple, more intuitive argument to promote 227: Teach kids a language by immersing them in that language.

``The average person hears the words `bilingual education' and he thinks, that's the program where they don't teach English in school, and he says to himself that makes no sense at all,'' Unz says.

But it makes perfect sense to Maria Bernal, 31, who arrived from Mexico at age 12 and went to a Los Angeles school.

``I didn't understand anything, the teacher got mad when my friends translated, and when I graduated I didn't know any English,'' Bernal says. ``Now my daughter is in bilingual (in Fresno), and she's doing very good in English.''

But other immigrants support 227. ``I learned English from TV -- Sesame Street,'' says Moises Negrete, 19, of Los Angeles, who wishes he had been taught only in English from early grades, as was his younger sister. ``There are words I don't know and I should know. My sister is in first grade and she can read English now. She learns Spanish at home.''

In bilingual theory, students are mainstreamed into English-only classes after three to five years; in practice, it can take much longer. ``The research shows that on average it takes five years,'' says David Ramirez, an opponent of 227 and director of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at California State University-Long Beach.

Most academic specialists in language acquisition say studies show that in theory a properly designed, well-funded primary-language program with fluent teachers and quality textbooks will produce students who can compete -- eventually -- with their English-speaking peers.

But there are dissenters. Charles Glenn, a Boston University professor who compared what other countries do in a 1996 book, Educating Immigrant Children, says ``the evidence does not show that you have to teach children in their home language. That's not to say it's (a disadvantage), but there's no evidence it is an advantage.''

The state ``redesignation rate'' -- the percentage of children with limited English deemed ready for English-only classes each year -- is only 6.7%. A rate of 12%, which San Francisco schools have, is considered high.

An in-depth look at California's failing schools, published by the Los Angeles Times on May 17, found that more than 1,000 schools with limited-English students failed to redesignate a single student last year.

Supporters of 227 say this only demonstrates the stark failures of the current system. Opponents say it proves children can't learn English in just one year, as called for in 227.

The dropout rate is cited by both sides. State figures show that 5.6% of Hispanic students dropped out in the 1995-96 school year, compared with 2% of Asian students, 2.4% of white students and 6.6% of black students.

``Latinos get the most bilingual instruction, and they are the ones who do the worst in school, who have the high dropout rates and the lowest admission rates to college,'' Unz says. ``It's not all the fault of bilingual education but it makes people skeptical.''

Opponents of 227 say the rate is high because not enough Hispanic students are in bilingual education.

``They want to use the dropout rate to make bilingual the scapegoat when only 30% of the kids are in it,'' says Laura Garcia, a bilingual-education teacher in Kings Canyon Middle School in Fresno. ``If more had been in it, they wouldn't have dropped out.''