Wall Street Journal

Monday, June 29, 1998

Bilingual Science

California citizens have watched distraught over the years as lawyers tied up propositions on changes ranging from affirmative action (Prop 209) to term limits (Prop 140, eight years in court). Now the thought police is busy trying to straitjacket this season's expression of democracy, Prop 227, a landmark ballot measure to curtail bilingual education's excesses that passed by a very democratic 61%.

This time, though, the court battle may be one to look forward to. For a change, the Prop 227 case seems to have landed in the care of a reasonable judge named Charles Legge. The San Jose Mercury News reports that the judge told another paper that "You won't find me bringing down the barricades with the liberals. But you also will not find me putting up barricades."

Then there is the matter of the case. The lawyers are insisting Prop 227 violates federal civil rights law, EEOC prescript, and--what else?--the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. But there is no clear precedent of a federal court forcing a state to provide bilingual ed when its citizens oppose that. So when the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy Inc. and the rest of the bilingual mafia sally into Judge Legge's court with a request for a preliminary injunction, they won't have much to argue with.

Indeed, to judge from their three-inch brief, the opponents of Prop 227 are going to concentrate on another angle. Prop 227 will immerse children who don't know English in a special, intensive, one-year program, then transfer them to regular classes. The lawyers are going to argue this will cause irreparable damage to kids, a criterion for obtaining an injunction.

It's the basic argument that built bilingual ed: kids need five or more years in special classes before they can learn English. In other words these folks have talked themselves into believing an amazing thing: that to learn English, kids shouldn't learn in English. Stephen Krashen, one of bilingual ed's bigger gurus, provided a nice example of bilingual ed think in an April 17 letter to the Orange County Register: "A limited English proficient child who has learned math through the primary language, and thus has a good background in math, will understand much more in math class taught in English than a limited English proficient child without this background." And we thought math was about the universal language of numbers.

But the evidence in court will show that it is the old program, not Prop 227, that does the "irreparable damage." California's bilingual ed program has been up and running for many years, plenty of time to yield data on the consequences of four, or five, or seven years in the bilingual barrio. And that data look terrible. High schoolers often dropped out in despair when they realized they couldn't perform in the English world they had been kept from. High schoolers in Los Lunas, N.M. even walked out of school to protest the obsessive Spanish focus.

The greater point is that America has had a whole mountain of empirical evidence to counter the arguments of the MALDEFs and their scholars. We are a nation of immigrants. Most of us, or our parents or grandparents, had to learn English in an intimidating situation. And yet they did, often successfully enough to enjoy prosperous, if lightly accented, careers. It's time to give newer immigrants the same chance.