CALIFORNIA PROPOSITION 227
By Richard W. Riley
U.S. Secretary of Education
April 27, 1998
Helping All Children Learn English
As we look to the future of American education, one of the most important
new developments is the growing number of immigrant children that we must
educate. According to the latest census data, nearly 20 percent of all
children in our nation's schools – one out of five – are immigrants or
the American-born children of immigrants.
A new study of immigrant children (1) states that 13.7
million children under 18 are either immigrants or the American-born offspring
of immigrants, and that they are the fastest growing part of our student
population. These children come from over 150 nations with the largest
number coming from Mexico, the Phillippines, Cuba, and Vietnam.
Some Americans say that these children are a liability, but I welcome
these children, just as the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge
has welcomed them for years. They are a great source of strength and hope
for the future of America, and we want them to be full participants in
the American experience as children and as adults.
These young people, just like generations of immigrants who have come
before them, can grow up to be patriotic Americans who will add their voices
to our democracy if we educate them to the best of our ability and treat
them as we would like to be treated. Indeed, the largest survey ever conducted
of immigrant children found that these young people had higher grades and
a lower school drop-out rate than other children and overwhelmingly preferred
to speak English by the time they were teenagers. (2)
These young people represent the hopes of immigrant parents who have
come to America because they believe in the American dream. They have stood
in long visa lines, uprooted their families, left relatives behind, changed
careers, often accepted menial jobs and in many cases now work two jobs
for one great purpose – to give their children a better life in America.
Surely we can meet these people half-way by giving their children the best
education possible so that they can make their contribution to the American
Teaching these young people English is one of the great tasks of nation-building
and it falls to our public schools to accomplish. This is not the first
time that the task of educating millions of new immigrants to become good
citizens has been given to our nation's public schools. At the turn of
the century our nation's public schools successfully taught millions of
new immigrants English and educated them about our democracy.
Today, we face the same challenge. There are school districts in almost
every part of our country – from Boston to Seattle to Miami – where children
speak more than 40 languages. I believe that our nation's public schools
can successfully educate these young people if we give them the same opportunities
that other students need in order to succeed: higher standards, safe schools,
smaller classes, well-prepared teachers, technology in the classroom, after-school
activities, and schools that are accountable for results.
President Clinton has made education his number one domestic priority
to achieve one end – to prepare all of America's children – native-born
and immigrant – for the 21st century. President Clinton has also increased
funding for those programs – Title I, immigrant and bilingual education,
migrant education, adult education – that directly serve a disproportionate
number of immigrant children and their families.
Today, however, there are growing questions about the best way to teach
these young people English. In California, these concerns about how to
teach English center around Proposition 227, the Unz Initiative, which
would effectively eliminate bilingual education and require that all children
learn English in one year.
I recognize that the decision to vote for or against the Unz Initiative
this coming June is ultimately a decision for the voters of California.
I know that there are many well-intentioned and concerned citizens on both
sides of this issue and that the people of California are taking this issue
New immigrants have a passion to learn English and they want the best
for their children. We must focus on what is best for the children and
in this increasingly diverse society we must make sure that all of America's
children are given the best education possible. Our common goal in teaching
children English should be to support those approaches that ensure that
Limited-English-Proficient (LEP) children are both speaking English and
making academic progress.
Proposition 227, however, is not the way to go. In my opinion, adoption
of the Unz Amendment will lead to fewer children learning English and many
children falling further behind in their studies. There are five significant
reasons why I believe that the Unz Amendment is counter-productive to a
quality education for all of our children.
First, the one year time limit and one-size-fits-all approach to learning
English flies in the face of years of research that tells us that children
learn in different ways and at different speeds. A recent National Research
Council report (3) released last month states that, "hurrying
young non-English speaking children into reading in English without ensuring
adequate preparation is counter-productive." The report recommends that
children with no English proficiency are best taught to read English by
first being taught reading in their native language, if teachers and instructional
materials in their native language are available.
Thus, while an English-only approach may be effective for some limited-English-proficient
children, it is likely to be ineffective for others. I do not oppose special
English instructional programs. In fact, about 25 percent of our current
federal bilingual funds support this type of instructional approach. What
I question is the arbitrary one-year time limit and the demand that only
this approach is the right approach to help young people learn English.
The approach taken by Proposition 227 simply ignores the individual
needs of each child and certainly is an educational straitjacket for teachers
and parents. Good teaching starts with a child's needs and moves the child
along in a timely and responsible manner.
By analogy, if we adopted the approach suggested by the Unz Initiative
to help children learn to read, it would be a disaster. Some children are
already good readers when they come to kindergarten and others learn by
the end of the first or second grades. Other children need extra help even
in third grade and beyond.
Second, the Unz Amendment limits the discretion of teachers to choose
the approach that is best suited for the children they teach. Some children
may learn best in an English-only class, others may learn faster in a bilingual
class or through some other proven approach, but with the Unz approach,
teachers are given no option to use their professional judgment.
Third, Proposition 227 would subject teachers, school board members,
and educational administrators to personal liability in litigation by parents
if they fail to comply with its requirements. I find this aspect of Proposition
227 both punitive and threatening. This is not the way to build parent-teacher
cooperation – a key to student success.
Fourth, the Unz Initiative is a direct attack on local control of education.
I am surprised that so many outspoken advocates of local control have chosen
not to take issue with this fundamental flaw in the Unz Initiative. The
Unz Initiative would not be a helping hand for language instruction, but
rather the heavy hand of overregulation. Local flexibility to choose the
approaches that work best for their students should not be constrained
by a mandate for one approach over the other. I believe that every school
district should choose the approach that works best for them based on sound
Fifth, the Unz Initiative will in all likelihood result in problems
under federal civil rights laws. In the seminal case of Lau
v. Nichols, the Supreme Court interpreted Title VI of the Civil
Rights Act to require school districts to take steps to ensure that national
origin minority students with limited English proficiency can effectively
participate in the regular educational program.
Similarly, the Equal Educational Opportunity Act requires public educational
agencies to overcome language barriers that impede student participation
in their instructional programs. Limiting special language development
instruction to one year and preventing a school from providing bilingual
instruction to students, despite the judgment of teachers and the school
principal that children in that school need bilingual instruction to progress,
are likely to result in violations under these laws.
I join all Californians who are unhappy with the status-quo and I understand
the frustration that is encouraging many voters to think about voting for
the Unz Initiative. But the approach of the Unz Initiative is just plain
wrong. Proposition 227 may satisfy people's sense of frustration but ultimately
it is counter-productive to our common goal of making sure children learn
English while making academic progress in other subjects as well.
I believe that there is a reasonable and positive alternative to the
current status-quo and the proposed Unz alternative.
I propose setting a three-year goal to make sure that a child is learning
English. Individual differences and circumstances may cause some children
to take longer, but a goal of learning English within three years is reasonable.
This goal is similar to our goal of making sure that every child learns
to read independently by the end of third grade or earlier. We know that
goals and standards improve academic performance: when we set goals, we
find, to a greater degree than we thought possible, that students can meet
A goal is not a mandate or a command. And a goal is certainly not a
one year educational straitjacket that limits the ability of teachers to
do what is best for each child. Some children may learn English in one
year or two and others may need three years or even more. The focus should
be on the individual needs of each child and not on some artificial and
arbitrary time frame.
Goals should be combined with flexibility and accountability. I believe
in giving local school districts latitude to design their own programs
contingent on their being accountable for the results. Parents have a right
to expect progress. Children should be tested periodically for English
proficiency and when a child is falling behind, extra efforts including
after-school classes as well as summer school should certainly be considered.
If a school district chooses an approach to teaching English that simply
does not achieve positive results for a large number of children, then
the school district must have the good sense to fix the problem or use
another approach that research shows will work. The focus of every program
– be it English-as-a-Second Language, dual language immersion, bilingual
education, or English immersion – must be on strengthening quality, regardless
of the approach.
I believe that the key to strengthening quality is well-trained teachers
and we must do a much better job of meeting the demand for more well-prepared
teachers. The demand for bilingual teachers, for example, currently exceeds
the supply and that is particularly true in California where the number
of LEP children has nearly doubled to 1.3 million in less than a decade.
The California State Board of Education estimates that there is a shortage
of 21,000 bilingual teachers in that state.
This, I suspect, is one of the root causes and real reasons why some
parents have become frustrated. The Administration has asked for a doubling
of federal funds, from $25 million to $50 million, to meet the increasing
demand for fully certified bilingual teachers and English-as-second-language
I have no doubt that this nation has the capacity to include our many
new immigrants and their children in the American experience. We must do
everything possible to make sure that all of these children learn English
as quickly as possible and get the quality education that they deserve.
Finally, I think American educators need to redouble their efforts to
make sure that all of our children are fluent in two languages. I just
returned from Chile where I joined President Clinton at the second Summit
of the Americas. Improving education was a central part of the dialogue
at this summit. I was struck by the fact that several nations begin teaching
their children two languages starting in the first grade.
Anyone who has traveled to Europe knows that young people all over Europe
are fluent in two and often three languages. I see no reason why our children
should not be their equals. Some children already come to school with the
ability to speak two languages. We should build on this linguistic base
and recognize that our nation will be the better for it in the new global
Think of the many advantages – economic, cultural and political – that
a fluency in two languages can give to the American people. America's message
of democracy, human rights and economic freedom would surely reach a wider
audience. This is why I encourage and support any school district that
sets the goal of making sure that every one of their high school graduates
will speak two languages fluently by the time they graduate.
We can do no less for today's immigrants than we did for earlier generations
of immigrants who turned to our nation's public schools to teach them English
and the basics of our democracy. In conclusion, I urge all Americans to
welcome America's new citizens and to help them to become part of the American
1. Rumbaut, Rubén G., Visiting Scholar, The Russell
Sage Foundation and Professor of Sociology, Michigan State University,
The Post-Immigrant Generation in an Age of Diversity, p. 1.
2. Ibid., pp. 17, 18, and 19.
3. National Research Council, Preventing Reading
Difficulties in Young Children, p. 324.