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

Canard of the Month 
October 1997

Responding to Unz-Supported Claims


Ron Unz, chairman of English for the Children, is spearheading an anti-bilingual education initiative in California. Not surprisingly, he has some strong opinions on the subject. Yet, when asked to back them up, he's able to marshal surprisingly little evidence. Unz advances four basic claims: 
    1. that immigrant children are failing to learn English in California because of bilingual education; 
    2. that English-only immersion programs which provide maximum exposure to the second language are more effective in teaching English; 
    3. that immigrant parents want their children schooled in English-only not bilingual classrooms; and 
    4. that bilingual education exists in California mainly to perpetuate a self-serving bureaucracy at enormous cost to the taxpayers.
    Let's examine these one by one. 

"Immigrant education is a complete failure in California. ... Each year only about 5% of children not proficient in English are found to have gained proficiency in English. Thus, the current system of language instruction has an annual failure rate of 95%."
    English for the Children campaign
    This statement is misleading in several ways:
    1. Bilingual education cannot be held to blame for "failure" of the "current system" because it serves only a minority of limited-English-proficient (LEP) children in California schools. Last year, fewer than 30 percent of the state's 1,381,393 LEP students were enrolled in bilingual classrooms, while more than 70 percent were taught their lessons only in English.<1> If California schools are failing these children today, it's due to an overdose of Ron Unz's prescription English-only instruction. 
    2. No rational observer would claim that high schools have a "75% failure rate" because only 25% of their students graduate each year. Likewise with English acquisition. Setting a one-year standard is equally arbitrary. LEP children often do pick up conversational skills quickly (a.k.a. playground English). But research has shown that it takes them far longer to acquire the academic English they need to succeed in school typically 4 to 7 years if enrolled in an effective bilingual program; 7 to 10 years in an English-only program.<2>
    3. The statistics Unz uses the percentage of LEP students "redesignated" as fluent in English each year are very crude yardsticks for assessing school programs. Such figures fluctuate wildly from year to year and school to school, often distorted by uncontrolled variables such as enrollment trends, dropout and transfer rates, students' socioeconomic status, and parents' education level. 
    4. "Redesignation rates" are further distorted by a lack of uniform definitions and procedures for gauging limited English proficiency. These vary widely among school districts and even among schools within the same system. Sometimes the standard is unrealistically high. For example, some districts do not redesignate LEP children as fluent-English-proficient (FEP) until they score above the 50th percentile in English in other words, in the top half of their class. Needless to say, substantial numbers of kids never make it to that level, including many native English speakers.
    5. Yet even by this imperfect measure, LEP students often do better in bilingual classrooms than in English-only classrooms, as illustrated in Table I. Two Orange County districts that have resisted bilingual education (Garden Grove Unified and Westminster Elementary) have consistently lower "redesignation rates" than two demographically similar districts in nearby Los Angeles County (ABC Unified and Baldwin Park Unified).
Table I. LEP Students Redesignated as FEP, 1993-1996, in Selected California School Districts, by Percentage of LEP students in Bilingual Classrooms.
FEP 1996
FEP 1995
FEP 1994
FEP 1993 
in BE 
Districts with Limited Bilingual Education
3.4% 3.2% 3.9% 4.0% 3.6% 4.6
4.7% 3.3% 1.1% 1.2% 2.6% 1.4
Districts with More Bilingual Education
11.5% 7.5% 9.7% 9.2% 9.5% 41.8
11.7% 12.3% 12% 13.5% 12.4% 36.4
California Average 6.5% 5.9% 5.5% 5.1% 5.7% 30.2

Source: California Department of Education, 1996 Language Census.

"Research indicates that sheltered English immersion ... is the most rapid and efficient means of English language acquisition. Within months to a year, the overwhelming majority of these young children would become fluent in English ..."

English for the Children campaign
    Unz cites no research showing the superiority of "sheltered English immersion" or that children can "become fluent in English ...within months to a year" for a simple reason: such research does not exist. Only a few English-only programs for LEP children have been evaluated in the United States and, of these, none has shown impressive results. 

    There is nothing wrong with "sheltered English" per se teaching a second language through content instruction that's tailored to students' level of English proficiency. Indeed, sheltered English methodologies are widely used in bilingual education programs. But research shows that such "immersion" techniques are far more effective when used along with native-language instruction. That's the approach recommended by the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in its new ESL standards: 

      "For ESOL learners the most effective educational environments for second language teaching and learning are those that promote ESOL students' native language and literacy development as a foundation for English language and academic development."<3>
    By contrast, English-only immersion is a stopgap approach that some schools provide when they are unable or unwilling to offer bilingual education. Most experts believe it is better than doing nothing for LEP children, but few would recommend it as a model to emulate. That's because this approach has virtually no support in educational research. 

"Latinos overwhelmingly rate learning English as the top educational goal for their children, and by 4-1 favor their children learning English as soon as possible rather than learning Spanish before English ('bilingual education')."

English for the Children campaign
    Give parents a false either/or choice "Do your want your children to learn English? Or do you want them taught only in Spanish?" and the vast majority will opt for English every time. Polling results can be easily manipulated in this way. Unz relies on two surveys of Hispanic parents. A 1996 poll commissioned by the so-called Center for Equal Opportunity, a neoconservative advocacy group, asked the loaded question:
      In general, which of the following comes closes to your opinion? 
      1. My child should be taught his/her academic courses in Spanish, even if it means they will spend less time learning English. (12.2%)
      2. My child should be taught his/her academic courses in English, because they will spend more time learning English. (81.3%)
      3. Don't know. (6.5%).<4>
    A 1997 Los Angeles Times poll of Latinos living in Orange County, California, asked a question that fails to convey the reality of bilingual education:
      Which of the following do you most prefer for teaching students who speak limited English? 
      1. Mostly English with some help in their native language. (57%)
      2. Only in English as soon as they enroll in school. (26%)
      3. Native language until they are ready to learn English. (17%)<5>
    In fact, option #3 is a poor surrogate for bilingual education programs, the vast majority of which feature significant amounts of English from day one. As Stephen Krashen notes in a letter to the Times, option #1 comes closer than the others to what "most experts on bilingual education recommend." Another way to look at this poll is that only 1 in 4 Latinos favors English-only instruction even in conservative Orange County.

    More objective researchers, by accurately describing what goes on in bilingual classrooms, have elicited very different answers. In several such surveys, minority communities have expressed strong approval of schooling their children in two languages. For example: 
    1996 California Latino Issues Poll, Southwest Voter Research Institute:

      86.3% of registered Latino voters supported bilingual education in a statewide survey.<6>

      Asian immigrant parents, two surveys reported in 1996:

      70 percent of Korean parents supported Korean-English bilingual instruction; 
      60 percent of Hmong parents supported Hmong-English bilingual instruction.<7>

"I hate to say this, but I think one of the real goals of the bilingual education program in California is to keep the hundreds of millions of dollars going into that program and paying the salaries of all the bureaucrats and administrators."
Ron Unz, KABC/KGO Radio, 6 August 1997
    When all else fails, attack the "bureaucrats" and "special interests" who waste tax dollars on "minorities" there's always a receptive audience for that kind of demagoguery. For far-Right politicians like Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Simi Valley), such rhetoric has become a reflex action. McClintock, who helped Unz win an endorsement for his initiative by California Republicans, denounced bilingual education as "a cash cow for the teachers' unions."

    Annual spending of "hundreds of millions" does sound like a lot. But compared to what? A bit of context is needed here (see Table II).

    Does spending for English language learners add excessively to the cost of running California's public schools? You make the call.

Table II. California Expenditures on K-12 Education and Categorical Aid for LEP Students, 1995-96.
Total state spending for all California students, 
    grades K-12
$26.8 billion
Categorical state aid to educate LEP students<8>
    as a percentage of total spending 
$319 million
Portion of categorical aid for bilingual instruction<9>
    as a percentage of total spending
$95.7 million
Number of LEP students in California
    as percentage of total enrollment
Spending per student in California public schools $4,927
Supplemental spending per LEP student $241
    Source: California Department of Education; National Center for Education Statistics.
California also received $55 million in federal funds under the Bilingual Education Act for programs to serve LEP students, along with a portion of the state's allocation under Title I, Education for Disadvantaged Children. Some, but by no means all, of this money went to support bilingual classrooms.

The key question which critics usually fail to ask is whether bilingual education is costlier than other alternatives for educating LEP students. The answer is no, according to a 1992 study commissioned by the California legislature, which analyzed five common program models.<10> It turned out that bilingual approaches cost no more and in some cases considerably less than English-only approaches. By far the most expensive were programs in which children were "pulled out" of class for tutoring in English as a second language, an approach that requires an extra complement of teachers.

Table III. Supplemental LEP Education Costs Per Pupil, by Model and Activity, in Selected California Schools.
Late-exit Bilingual Early-exit Bilingual English Immersion ESL Pullout 2-Way Bilingual Overall Average 
Direct Instruction $59 $20 $3 $1,042 $186 $123
Admin. & Support $90 $129 $106 $99 $472 $120
Language Assessment $22 $43 $60 $46 $24 $36
Inservice Training $9 $22 $6 $11 $194 $19
Total Avg. Supp. Costs $180 $214 $175 $1,194 $876 $298

Source: Chambers and Parrish 1992.

    1. California Department of Education, Educational Demographics Unit, Language Census for California Public Schools, 1997. 

    2. Virginia P. Collier, "Acquiring a Second Language for School," Directions in Language and Education 1, no. 4 (Fall 1995). 

    3. ESL Standards for Pre-K12 Students (Alexandria, Va.: TESOL, 1997), p. 8. 

    4. Significantly, 81.5% of respondents said their children had never been in a special program for English language learners; Michael LaVelle, The Importance of Learning English: A National Survey of Hispanic Parents (Washington, D.C.: Center for Equal Opportunity, 1996).

    5. Nick Anderson, "Times Orange County Poll: Public Schools Deserve Good Grades, Most Say," Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1997.

    6. Cited in Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, "California Conservatism's Worst Nightmare Revealed," Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1997. 

    7. F. Shin and B. Lee, "K-12 Teachers and Hmong and Korean Parents' Perceptions of Bilingual Education," Paper presented at CABE Conference, Jan. 11, 1996; F. Shin and S. Kim, "Korean Parent Perceptions and Attitudes of Bilingual Education," in Current Issues in Asian and Pacific American Education (West Covina, Calif.: Pacific Asian Press, forthcoming); cited in Stephen Krashen, Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education (Culver City, Calif.: Language Education Associates, 1996). 

    8. Known as Economic Impact Aid, this program provides supplemental funding on a per-capita basis to help schools educate not only LEP students, but also some "low-achieving" students who are not LEP. Over the past decade, The EIA has failed to keep pace with rising enrollments. Adjusted for inflation, its 1996 allowance per student represented a reduction of 43 percent from the 1987 level.

    9. Estimate based on the 30% of LEP children enrolled in bilingual classrooms.

    10. Jay Chambers and Tom Parrish, Meeting the Challenge of Diversity: An Evaluation of Programs for Pupils with Limited Proficiency in English, vol. IV, Cost of Programs and Services for LEP Students (Berkeley, Calif.: BW Associates, 1992). The study examined only well-implemented programs of each type, so this nonrandom sample cannot be "generalized" to compute average expenditures for all California schools.

    Copyright © 1997 by James Crawford. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this page for free, noncommercial distribution, provided that credit is given and this notice is included. Requests for permission to reproduce in any other form should be emailed to But before writing, please read my permissions FAQ.