English-Language Learners

Voters Courted in Two States On Bilingual Ed.

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 11, 2002 6 min read
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Elections 2002

With Nov. 5 nearing, the foes of ballot initiatives to end bilingual education in Colorado and Massachusetts are honing new arguments aimed at persuading voters in their states to do what voters in California and Arizona did not: defeat the proposals.

And they have their work cut out for them. According to recent polls, likely voters in the Centennial and Bay states are in favor of the proposals by big margins.

Approval of the two latest initiatives in the November general election would likely boost similar efforts in other states to curb bilingual education in public schools, despite the mixed records of the California and Arizona measures since their passage in 1998 and 2000, respectively.

Well aware of the challenge, a coalition opposing the initiative in Colorado is steering away from discussing the ins and outs of bilingual education, an educational method in which students are taught subjects in their native languages while learning English. “We’re not talking about the pros and cons of a subject that 80 percent of voters have difficulty understanding,” said John D. Britz, a consultant to the group, English Plus.

Instead, English Plus leaders are stressing their interpretation that the Colorado initiative, called Amendment 31, would curtail parents’ educational choices for their children, create unnecessarily punitive measures for educators who didn’t implement the law, and cost taxpayers a lot of money.

In Massachusetts, the opposition is also focusing on the lawsuits teachers could face if they ignore the initiative, should it become law. Rather than defend the merits of bilingual education, the group is trying to spread the word that the Massachusetts legislature passed a law recently to modify bilingual education.

“Voters need to understand that the legislature just reformed bilingual education,” said Charles Glick, a consultant to the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, which is fighting the initiative in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, Ron K. Unz, the California businessman who was the author of the initiatives that passed in his state and in Arizona, as well as the ones being proposed in Colorado and Massachusetts, has persisted with the same message for four years: Bilingual education doesn’t work.

“Get rid of it,” he said in an interview last week from Denver, where he defended the Colorado proposal in a public debate.

He hasn’t noticed his current opponents using new arguments.

“If you took the people from Colorado and put them in a time machine and sent them to California, and took people from California and put them in Colorado, no one would know the difference,” he said. “They’d say, ‘They’re using the same arguments.’ ”

Perceptions of Impact

According to several public- opinion polls conducted by local news organizations, likely voters in Colorado and Massachusetts strongly favor the initiatives, which call for bilingual education programs to be replaced with English-immersion programs “not normally to exceed one year.”

Polls conducted in both states have shown repeatedly that about two-thirds of those surveyed say they support the initiatives.

Voters in those two states who study the pioneering, 4-year-old California measure for guidance won’t get a definitive verdict. California voters approved Proposition 227, their initiative to curtail bilingual education, in June 1998 with 61 percent of the vote.

Mr. Unz contends that Proposition 227 has caused the test scores of English-language learners in California to rise significantly. He zeroes in on scores of 2nd graders, whose test-score gains have been the greatest.

An exhaustive evaluation of Proposition 227 by West Ed and the American Institutes for Research, and paid for by the California Department of Education, offers more tempered conclusions.

It notes that standardized-test scores of English-language learners have steadily risen over the past four years, but adds that the rise can’t be attributed simply to Proposition 227.

Educators said in a survey by the researchers that implementation of academic standards for English-language learners, an extra focus on reading, and increased accountability, as well as Proposition 227, had affected the achievement of English-language learners.

The study also found that neither bilingual education nor English immersion outperformed the other when it came to student achievement.

For his part, Mr. Glick, the consultant to opponents of the Massachusetts proposal, paints a picture of teachers in California feeling threatened by the punitive measures included in Proposition 227. He predicts the same in Massachusetts if the initiative passes there.

What is indisputable about the Unz initiatives approved by voters so far is that they have greatly curtailed bilingual education in the affected states.

In both California and Arizona, about a third of English-language learners were taking bilingual education classes before the initiatives passed. That proportion plummeted to 11 percent in both states after the initiatives were implemented.

Teacher Liability

Two aspects of the pending initiatives that draw especially heated debate are the strict circumstances under which parents could request waivers permitting schools to place their children in bilingual education, and the consequences for educators who failed to properly implement the laws.

In the three initiatives that Mr. Unz drafted after passage of Proposition 227 in California, he made the conditions under which parents could seek waivers more restrictive and stiffened the consequences for educators who violated the laws.

All four initiatives say, for instance, that educators, including teachers and administrators, can be sued, but only the three most recent ones—in Arizona, Colorado, and Massachusetts—say they will lose their jobs for five years if they fail to carry out the provisions.

Such provisions in the proposed law don’t sit well with the public, argues Delia Pompa, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

“People are waking up to the fact that this isn’t a silver bullet, that the people who are making these provisions are getting more mean-spirited and holding teachers liable, and the public doesn’t like that,” she said.

Proponents of the initiatives that passed complain that some schools have violated the spirit of the law. Proposition 203, which was approved in November 2000, passed with 63 percent of the vote.

Margaret Garcia Dugan, an administrator for the 14,000-student Glendale district who was active in the Arizona campaign to pass Proposition 203, for example, accuses the Tucson schools of interpreting waiver procedures too loosely.

Last September, the district had 2,000 students enrolled in bilingual education, a huge drop from the 4,800 students it had enrolled before Proposition 203. By the start of this school year, the number of waivers granted by the district had increased to 4,400, bringing the total of students in bilingual education there almost up to its previous mark.

Leonard E. Basurco, the director of bilingual education for the 63,000-student Tucson school district, said the waiver procedures were precisely implemented, and added that it is a different group of students who are taking bilingual education now than were before Proposition 203.

He views the antibilingual education law in his state as a bureaucratic hassle.

“This new law doesn’t make it easier for students to learn English,” Mr. Basurco said. “It makes it a lot more difficult for teachers and principals to make the best decisions for English-language learners.”

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