Anti-Bilingual Initiative
Bilingual Education
Impact of Unz
Initiative Text
LA Times Polls
Prop. 209
Responding to Unz
Sophistry 101
USC Poll

Anti-Bilingual Initiative

Analyzing the Impact of Unz

"English for the Children" here's a goal that virtually all Californians can support. But is that the likely outcome of Ron Unz's anti-bilingual initiative? Or would an English Only law prove harmful to limited-English-proficient (LEP) students, retarding their academic progress and denying them an equal chance to succeed?

As drafted, the Unz initiative is complex, confusing, and radical. If it passes next June, the final word on what it means, how it would work, and whether it's constitutional would surely be decided in court. 

Yet California voters need to consider its potential effects before casting their ballots. For 1.4 million schoolchildren, the stakes are high. Unz would permanently outlaw one way of teaching these students and mandate another. Few exceptions would be allowed, regardless of the wishes of parents, educators, or school boards. This is not an experiment to see which approach works best, or a pilot program that would be subject to change. Once enacted, the English Only mandate could not be amended or repealed without a two-thirds vote of the legislature, as well as the governor's signature. 

So we'd better look carefully at the text of the initiative and attempt to gauge its potential impact. First, we'll need to flush out a few canards. Then we'll look at reasons to oppose  the initiative.

ARTICLE 1. Findings and Declarations 

300. The People of California find and declare as follows: 

(a) WHEREAS the English language is the national public language of the United States of America and of the state of California, is spoken by the vast majority of California residents, and is also the leading world language for science, technology, and international business, thereby being the language of economic opportunity; 

No question, English is an essential skill for all U.S. residents. But in an increasingly global marketplace, English is by no means the only "language of economic opportunity." Americans are finding that monolingualism puts us at an increasing disadvantage not only in "science, technology, and international business," but also in diplomacy, national security, and cultural exchange. Discouraging bilingualism by neglecting to develop children's skills in languages other than English would poorly serve California's interests.

(d) WHEREAS the public schools of California currently do a poor job of educating immigrant children, wasting financial resources on costly experimental language programs whose failure over the past two decades is demonstrated by the current high drop-out rates and low English literacy levels of many immigrant children;

Again, few would deny that the public schools have serious shortcomings in teaching immigrant and other language-minority students. But the "experimental" nature of language programs is not among them. Bilingual education has a proven record of success in California where it's available and where it's supported by school districts. Unfortunately, bilingual teachers remain in such short supply that bilingual classrooms were provided for only 30 percent of eligible children last year. Dropout and illiteracy rates, while still too high, have declined substantially since bilingual programs were introduced in the late 1960s.

Who's to say whether such programs are too "costly"? This is a value judgment that voters must decide for themselves. No doubt many of Ron Unz's supporters feel that any special expenditure to help immigrant children is too much. In 1995-96, the state of California provided schools $241 per English language learner to cover such costs 4.9 percent over the average per capita expenditure for all students. A 1992 study commissioned by the legislature found that bilingual programs cost about the same as or, in some cases, considerably less than English-only programs.

(e) WHEREAS young immigrant children can easily acquire full fluency in a new language, such as English, if they are heavily exposed to that language in the classroom at an early age. 

This is perhaps the most pervasive myth about second-language learning. What appears so "obvious" to laypersons is unsupported by science. Children do tend to "pick up" oral communication skills at a young age, often without the anxiety and self-consciousness that impedes adult learners. But research on bilingualism has repeatedly shown that it takes them considerably longer typically 5 to 7 years to acquire the complex, decontextualized academic language needed for success in the classroom. Pushing students into the mainstream before they have acquired the necessary English skills is a recipe for academic failure. What's more, there is no credible research evidence to support the "time-on-task" theory of language learning. "Heavy exposure" cannot speed up this natural process. Indeed, English-only instruction is likely to result in slower English acquisition.

(f) THEREFORE it is resolved that: all children in California public schools shall be taught English as rapidly and effectively as possible.

"As rapidly and effectively as possible" are often contradictory goals when it comes to language teaching. Acquiring English takes considerably longer than most monolinguals imagine. The good news is that, contrary to myth, older children are more efficient language learners than younger children. So a gradual transition to English does not mean a lost opportunity to teach the language. In fact, research shows it's often the best way and meanwhile it doesn't retard students' academic progress.

ARTICLE 2. English Language Education 

305. Subject to the exceptions provided in Article 3 (commencing with Section 310), all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English. In particular, this shall require that all children be placed in English language classrooms. 

Using any language other than English to teach any child would become a violation of California law. The ban would appear to include not only native-language instruction by teachers but also "too much" native language support by teacher's aides. As a result, public schools would be required to dismantle all existing bilingual education programs whether good, bad, or indifferent. Moreover, the English Only mandate would apply to all students, regardless of their mother tongue. 

Children who are English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.

"Sheltered English immersion" not bilingual education is the unproven,experimental program. Very little research evidence exists on this model and what does exist is not encouraging. No such program in the United States claims to teach English within a "one year ... transition period." Nor is there any indication that immersion teaches English faster than bilingual program models.

In the largest study of English immersion to date, only 4 percent of LEP students were reclassified as fully English-proficient (FEP) after one year as compared with 13 percent of those in early-exit and 12 percent in late-exit bilingual programs.

Table I. Percentage of LEP Students Reclassified as FEP in 3 Program Models, by Years in Program
Years  in program English Immersion Early-Exit Bilingual Late-Exit Bilingual
1 (end of K) 3.9% 12.6% 11.8%
2 (end of 1st) 21.2% 25.4% 12.7%
3 (end of 2nd) 37.9% 43.8% 28.0%
4 (end of 3rd) 66.7% 72.0% 50.8%
5 (end of 4th) n.a. n.a. 67.0%
6 (end of 5th) n.a. n.a. 78.6%

Source: Ramírez et al. 1991.

Speed of English acquisition is far less important than long-term academic achievement. Students in late-exit bilingual programs had a more gradual transition to English. But after 6 years they significantly outperformed their peers in immersion and early-exit programs. 

Imposing "sheltered English immersion" as the only legal alternative for teaching LEP children is a leap in the dark, with no support in educational research. Most likely, it's also a leap backward to the sink-or-swim era, when these students' needs were largely ignored.

Local schools shall be permitted to place in the same classroom English learners of different ages but whose degree of English proficiency is similar. Local schools shall be encouraged to mix together in the same classroom English learners from different native-language groups but with the same degree of English fluency.

In other words, children would be warehoused in conditions inimical to learning any subject but English. This makes a mockery of the theory behind "sheltered English immersion" which aims to teach the language through academic content. That becomes a virtual impossibility in classrooms with students of varying ages, grades, and backgrounds. 

ARTICLE 3. Parental Exceptions 

310. The requirements of Section 305 may be waived with the prior written informed consent, to be provided annually, of the child's parents or legal guardian under the circumstances specified below and in Section 311. Such informed consent shall require that said parents or legal guardian personally visit the school to apply for the waiver and that they there be provided a full description of the educational materials to be used in the different educational program choices and all the educational opportunities available to the child. 

This "parental option" clause is a sham for several reasons, beginning with these formidable hurdles for parents whose own English skills are usually limited. In addition, most are unfamiliar with the procedures and culture of American schools. Strict requirements for paperwork and personal visits will discourage many parents from even applying for waivers. No provision is made for language assistance.

Under such parental waiver conditions, children may be transferred to classes where they are taught English and other subjects through bilingual education techniques or other generally recognized educational methodologies permitted by law. Individual schools in which 20 students or more of a given grade level receive a waiver shall be required to offer such a class; otherwise, they must allow the students to transfer to a public school in which such a class is offered. 

No provision is made for transporting children to other schools for bilingual classes a burden likely to fall entirely on families who can ill afford it.

311. The circumstances in which a parental exception waiver may be granted under Section 310 are as follows: 

(a) Children who already know English: the child already possesses good English language skills, as measured by standardized tests of English vocabulary comprehension, reading, and writing, in which the child scores at or above the state average for his grade level or at or above the 5th grade average, whichever is lower; 

By definition, "grade level" means the 50th percentile. This restriction thus excludes half of all children in California LEP or otherwise from any non-English-language instruction until they reach the "5th grade average." No exception is made for foreign-language programs or two-way bilingual immersion programs or heritage-language programs for Native American children. 

Such restrictions harken back to the World War I era, when American xenophobia reached a crescendo in English Only instruction laws. Several states banned the study of foreign languages by elementary school students statutes ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923). By reviving such a questionable policy, California would also defy a national trend toward introducing foreign language instruction in the early grades.

(b) Older children: the child is age 10 years or older, and it is the informed belief of the school principal and educational staff that an alternate course of educational study would be better suited to the child's rapid acquisition of basic English language skills; 

Older students can certainly benefit from bilingual instruction. Yet ironically, research shows it is less crucial for those who have a solid foundation in their native tongue than it is for young children just starting school.

(c) Children with special needs: the child already has been placed for a period of not less than thirty days during that school year in an English language classroom and it is subsequently the informed belief of the school principal and educational staff that the child has such special physical, emotional, psychological, or educational needs that an alternate course of educational study would be better suited to the child's overall educational development. A written description of these special needs must be provided and any such decision is to be made subject to the examination and approval of the local school superintendent, under guidelines established by and subject to the review of the local Board of Education and ultimately the State Board of Education. The existence of such special needs shall not compel issuance of a waiver, and the parents shall be fully informed of their right to refuse to agree to a waiver. 

Treating language needs as mental handicaps is another unfortunate tradition in the Southwest. Mexican-American children were often diagnosed as "slow learners," "learning disabled," or "mentally retarded" simply because they spoke Spanish. "Special needs" is today's stigmatizing label. Once applied, it's likely to follow students throughout their school careers. A dumbed-down curriculum, low academic expectations, and diminished self-confidence this is the price Ron Unz would exact in exchange for native-language instruction.

ARTICLE 4. Community-Based English Tutoring 

315. In furtherance of its constitutional and legal requirement to offer special language assistance to children coming from backgrounds of limited English proficiency, the state shall encourage family members and others to provide personal English language tutoring to such children, and support these efforts by raising the general level of English language knowledge in the community. Commencing with the fiscal year in which this initiative is enacted and for each of the nine fiscal years following thereafter, a sum of fifty million dollars ($50,000,000) per year is hereby appropriated from the General Fund for the purpose of providing additional funding for free or subsidized programs of adult English language instruction to parents or other members of the community who pledge to provide personal English language tutoring to California school children with limited English proficiency.

Expanding opportunities for adult immigrants to learn English as a second language (ESL) is a fine idea, which immigrant advocates have long advocated in Sacramento and Washington. But who is best qualified to teach English to children certified professionals or untrained persons who are still struggling with English themselves? Training more ESL teachers would bring far more "bang for the buck."

ARTICLE 5. Legal Standing and Parental Enforcement 

320. As detailed in Article 2 (commencing with Section 305) and Article 3 (commencing with Section 310), all California school children have the right to be provided with an English language public education. If a California school child has been denied the option of an English language instructional curriculum in public school, the child's parent or legal guardian shall have legal standing to sue for enforcement of the provisions of this statute, and if successful shall be awarded normal and customary attorney's fees and actual damages, but not punitive or consequential damages. Any school board member or other elected official or public school teacher or administrator who willfully and repeatedly refuses to implement the terms of this statute by providing such an English language educational option at an available public school to a California school child may be held personally liable for fees and actual damages by the child's parents or legal guardian. 

This provision is a standing invitation to ideological zealots. It offers a chance to harass teachers, administrators, and school board members with legal expenses picked up by the taxpayers. Threatening educators with lawsuits in which they "may be held personally liable" for monetary damages is designed to intimidate them. Under these constraints, who would dare to utter a non-English word in class? It would also set an ugly precedent at a time California is struggling to recruit thousands of new teachers. What's next language police?

ARTICLE 8. Amendment. 

335. The provisions of this act may be amended by a statute that becomes effective upon approval by the electorate or by a statute to further the act's purpose passed by a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature and signed by the Governor. 

This "super-majority" provision would make an English Only law virtually immune to legislative change or repeal no matter how badly it fails the children of California.

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