In what would be the latest in a series of emotionally charged ballot measures in California, an initiative that would severely curtail bilingual education in the state’s public schools seems almost certain to go before voters in June.
Launched by a multimillionaire businessman and an Orange County elementary school teacher, the “English for the Children” initiative is well on its way toward meeting a Dec. 1 deadline for collecting the 433,269 signatures needed to place it on the ballot.
The debate over the proposal is already heating up and seems likely to draw the national attention received by successful initiatives in recent years aimed at illegal immigrants and affirmative action in the state. (“Judge Rejects Prop 187 Bans on Calif. Services,” Nov. 29, 1995 and “Anti-Preference Measure Sparks Competing Suits,” Nov. 13, 1996.)
And it comes at a time when bilingual education in California and beyond is under fire from critics who charge that students are not learning English well or fast enough in such programs.
The initiative’s sponsors believe the best path to academic achievement for language-minority students in most cases is to learn English and learn it quickly. Too many bilingual programs, they say, shunt those students into slower learning tracks where they rarely learn sufficient English and from which they may never emerge.
And, they argue, their measure will place the key decisions in the hands of parents instead of educators.
But bilingual education’s supporters argue that students can best keep up academically with their English-speaking peers if they are taught at least partly in their native languages while learning English.
In general, the proposed initiative would require that students be taught in English, and it sets out the conditions under which parents could choose a bilingual education program. Students with limited English skills would be taught, in most cases, for no more than a year in special English classes before moving into the mainstream.
Although many education leaders and groups have not yet taken a formal position on the initiative, it appears likely that it will face opposition from the state’s school boards’ organization, the 270,000-member California Teachers Association, and the state’s elected schools chief.
“We don’t support the status quo. We want some changes in bilingual education,” said Doug Stone, a spokesman for California schools chief Delaine Eastin. “There are districts throughout California that have some very good bilingual programs; there are some that do not. But this initiative has a world view that says, let’s just dismiss them all.”
About 1.4 million, or a quarter of California’s 5.6 million schoolchildren, are considered limited-English-proficient, more than in any other state. But only a third of its LEP students are in programs that teach students in their native tongues for a few subjects a day, according to state officials.
The other two-thirds of such students receive more sporadic native-language instruction, are taught academic subjects in English geared toward their proficiency level, or receive no special language help at all.
Under the English for the Children initiative, all students would be taught in English through “sheltered English immersion,” where nearly all instruction is in English, but is specially designed for children learning it as a second language. If parents wanted their children enrolled in a bilingual education program, they would have to meet with school officials to hear about the program choices available before receiving a waiver.
The initiative is aimed primarily at younger children, who proponents argue will pick up a second language more easily, though some research findings reject that conclusion. Under it, schools would be able to grant waivers for several reasons: if a child has special needs; for younger children if their English skills are deemed sufficient; or for children over age 10 if school officials believe bilingual education would be more appropriate.
Schools where 20 students or more in the same grade level receive a waiver would have to offer a bilingual program or allow the students to transfer to a school that offered such an alternative.
The measure also would funnel $50 million a year to schools or community organizations to support free or low-cost English classes for adults who, in turn, pledged to tutor LEP children.
Questions of Control
The California School Boards Association--which represents districts on both sides of the bilingual education debate--sees the initiative as an affront to local control. “This initiative isn’t really about educating English-language learners, but it really is about taking control from districts and mandating a single approach from the state,” said Theresa Garcia, a senior research and policy analyst for the CSBA. “And that’s a very scary path to go down.”
The group particularly objects to a portion of the initiative that would allow parents to sue school administrators, school board members, or teachers who “willfully and repeatedly” refuse to abide by the measure, making them liable for damages and fees.
Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley businessman, launched the initiative and says he has spent more than $200,000 of his own money on the campaign. He said the legislature’s failure to deal with the thorny issue of how best to teach LEP students only strengthens momentum for the measure.
Although California’s bilingual education law was allowed to expire in 1987, its “general purposes” remain in effect. The state education department interprets that to include the old law’s requirement that students be educated in their native languages when necessary to ensure equal opportunity for academic achievement.
Competing interpretations of the law have fueled conflicts between the state and some districts. In the legislative session that closed last month, California lawmakers failed once again to pass a bilingual-reform bill. Some observers predict lawmakers will try again when they reconvene in January. (“Schools Still Pondering Their Response To Prop. 209,” Sept. 10, 1997.)
The proposed initiative’s supporters claim public opinion is on their side. They point to a widely publicized 1996 boycott of a Los Angeles school by Hispanic parents pushing for more English instruction--an event that both Mr. Unz and Gloria Matta Tuchman, a longtime teacher and bilingual education critic, said persuaded them to pursue the initiative.
“That’s what our opponents are most afraid of, that it won’t be the school’s choice anymore,” Ms. Matta Tuchman said. “It’ll be the parents.”