Hasta La Vista: January 1998

May 01, 2000 4 min read

Given the tense, ethnically polarized environment of turn- of-the-century California politics, 1st grade teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman certainly grabbed the bull by the horns when she introduced a statewide ballot initiative in 1997. Her English for the Children measure, known as Proposition 227 and co-authored with Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, aimed to purge the state’s schools of bilingual education, the practice of teaching students with limited English skills in their native language while gradually introducing them to English.

The initiative touched off fierce resistance from many teachers. At the time, bilingual education was mandated by the state, and they saw it as an essential tool for teaching the waves of Hispanics immigrating to California. It was widely believed that teaching core subjects in Spanish would prevent the newcomers from falling behind academically as they learned English.

The ballot initiative, however, proposed to replace bilingual education statewide with a method that the 55-year-old Tuchman had found successful, an approach called “sheltered English immersion.” With this strategy, all instruction is in English. When necessary, teachers use pictures and sign language to convey the meaning of words. Assistants explain hard-to-grasp concepts in students’ native languages. After no more than a year, Tuchman’s initiative decreed, kids who were learning English would be placed in regular classes with other students.

When Teacher Magazine visited Tuchman at her Santa Ana elementary school six months before the June 1998 election, Tuchman’s opponents were bad-mouthing her initiative and attacking her personally, calling the Latina teacher a self-hating Mexican American. Still, Tuchman and her English for the Children campaign gained momentum as the vote neared. Not only would her initiative pass, the teacher boasted, “it’s going to spread to other states.”

When the votes were tallied, Proposition 227 had won with an impressive 61 percent. Months of chaos followed, as schools struggled to adapt to the state’s new mandate. Some districts, including Tuchman’s, had already ordered the next year’s bilingual textbooks, having wrongly assumed that voters would veto the initiative.

While some parents won waivers to continue their schools’ bilingual ed programs, other parties turned to the courts for districtwide exemptions. Several districts joined the California Teachers Association and civil rights groups in a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 227. The Berkeley, Hayward, and Oakland school systems sued for the right to request exemptions. Neither challenge succeeded. Courts have allowed San Francisco and San Jose to continue bilingual ed programs districtwide, but only because of court rulings on discrimination that predate Proposition 227.

Educators at George Washington Elementary in Burbank, the school Teacher visited in 1998 to see how a good bilingual program works, decided to accept defeat gracefully and start using sheltered English immersion, figuring that a fight was not in the best interest of students. Still, it was a bitter pill to swallow. “When you have a program that you see working well for children, and you are dedicated to helping children, you don’t want to see it destroyed,” says principal Joan Baca, who is not yet convinced that one year of English immersion is enough. “It takes time to learn a second language when you don’t have a strong foundation in a first language.”

Like many educators, Baca believes pedagogical decisions should be made in the schools, not at the ballot box. California’s intiative process, she sighs, “doesn’t respect the teaching profession.”

Tuchman doesn’t see it that way. She concedes that the implementation of Proposition 227 has been messy but blames it on sore losers. Teachers, she argues, aren’t getting the training they need to use the sheltered-immersion approach. “Universities, the state department of education, and the county departments of education that certify teachers don’t want to admit that this law is in existence,” she says.

As for the nationwide domino effect she predicted, Tuchman can point to Arizona, where a copycat initiative will appear on the November ballot. Meanwhile, other states, most notably New Jersey, have actually expanded their bilingual education programs since the California measure passed.

Tuchman still teaches 1st grade at Taft-but maybe not for long. Her involvement with Proposition 227 caught the eye of some Republican strategists, who approached her about running for Congress in 2000. “It was hard to say no,” Tuchman admits, especially after a GOP poll showed that she’d be a strong candidate. Tuchman, who in 1998 narrowly lost a bid to become state superintendent of public instruction, will take on incumbent House Democrat Loretta Sanchez in the November elections.

Though Congress would be a prime spot from which to fight against bilingual education, Tuchman says that won’t be part of her agenda if she’s elected. “It should be decided state by state,” she says. “I believe in less government.”

—Samantha Stainburn