Wall Street Journal

Thursday, June 4, 1998

California Votes to Terminate Its Bilingual Education Classes

Widespread unease over the performance of U.S. public schools helped fuel passage of the California initiative ending bilingual education for the state's 1.4 million non-English-speaking youngsters.

That same unease, some educators predicted, will put pressure on other states to drop bilingual education, too.

Proposition 227, ending 30 years of bilingual instruction in California schools, passed with about 61% of the vote, and was immediately challenged in court by immigrant-rights groups.

The initiative requires the state's schools to dismantle programs that keep children in bilingual classes for as long as seven years and substitute a year of English immersion for those programs. After that, students will be placed in classes with their English-speaking peers.

Higher Dropout Rates Are Feared
Opponents of the initiative and some educators predicted that would eventually lead to even higher dropout rates among Hispanics, a social problem that could prove thornier than the one Proposition 227 seeks to solve.

Both those for and against the bilingual measure said it passed because of voter frustration with the public schools. That sentiment increasingly is finding its way onto state political agendas. But it is particularly strong in California, which in recent years has dropped from leading the nation in test scores to bringing up the rear, and where battles have been fought over the state's reading and math programs.

"There are a lot of angry taxpayers," said James Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, who interpreted the California vote as a show of frustration with the school system. Mr. Lyons predicted that efforts to abolish bilingual education would stop in California, just as earlier propositions to end racial preferences in public universities and to limit benefits to legal immigrants never crossed the state line. "I'm absolutely certain it won't spread," he said.

But other observers predicted that unhappiness with the schools would pressure other states with large non-English-speaking populations to reconsider their bilingual programs. "It's a hot political issue that's pretty much uninformed by reasoned research," said Jane Conoley, dean of education at Texas A&M University in College Station. After California, Texas has the largest bilingual school population.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur behind Proposition 227, predicted the California vote would end bilingual education in the rest of the country within two years, in large part because California accounts for almost half of the country's limited-English-speaking students and much of the immigrant political support behind it. The controversy over the California vote, moreover, has tempered support in Washington for bilingual education, which will alter it even if it isn't ended.

Wavering in Administration
President Clinton had proposed increasing spending on bilingual and immigrant education to $387 million in the year beginning in October, up from $354 million this year. But last month, as Proposition 227 seemed headed for passage, the Department of Education urged states to get children out of bilingual programs in three years. Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Bill Goodling, the chairman of the House Education Committee who has stymied many of Mr. Clinton's education innovations, urged the president "not to further meddle" in Proposition 227, and said California "is on the right track."

It could be several years before that is clear, though, because the research on the best way to teach English to schoolchildren is ambiguous. Gaea Leinhardt, a scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, said immersion is successful if the student wants to learn English and comes from a home that encourages learning.

But many bilingual students come from low-income families and attend high-poverty schools, and already have wide gaps in their educations. As it is, only 45% of Hispanics over the age of 25 in California, Texas and Illinois -- three states with among the highest numbers of limited-English students -- have high-school diplomas, and dropout rates could rise further with the added burden of English immersion, educators said. In that case, Proposition 227 "may very well come back to haunt us," Ms. Leinhardt said.

The Council of Great City Schools, an association of inner-city school districts, predicted more students will go into special-education classes, repeat grades or take summer school, which it said would prove more costly than bilingual education itself.

Still, Hispanic support for the initiative appeared largely based on economic concerns -- getting good-paying jobs -- in a state where the economy is rebounding and immigrant population is booming.

States with the largest enrollments of the nation's 3.2 million limited-English proficient students, in thousands

California 1,400
New York    457
Texas    236
Florida    154
Illinois    108

Source: Education Department