Calif. Rejection a Big Blow to Bilingualism
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 4, 1998; Page A16
The resounding decision that California voters made Tuesday to abolish bilingual education could chart a drastic new course for schools across the country struggling to educate a surging number of immigrant students who speak little or no English.
The measure, known as Proposition 227, passed easily, gaining more than 60 percent of the vote in California and with what exit polls suggest was sizable support from Hispanics the very group that the state's bilingual education programs are designed to help the most.
Now, instead of being taught mostly in their native language, often for years, the more than 1.4 million students in California who are not fluent in English will be given no more than a year of intensive immersion in English and then moved to regular classes.
It will be an extraordinary shift, for California gave rise to bilingual education three decades ago and relies on it now more than any other state. The change also comes at a time when many school systems, including most in the Washington area, are rethinking how to educate record numbers of immigrant students.
Nationally, the number of students enrolled in bilingual programs has doubled in the past 10 years it now exceeds 3 million but even Hispanic leaders are divided over whether the programs are speeding or slowing the assimilation of non-English speaking students.
"This vote will put much more pressure on schools around the country either to improve their bilingual education, limit it to only a few years or just get rid of it," said Jorge Amselle, a spokesman for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a group that supported Proposition 227.
The issue is already provoking tense debates in many school districts. In Chicago and Denver, school boards decided recently to limit their bilingual education programs to three years. Lawmakers in Arizona have voted to limit bilingual funding to four years.
Other districts are starting bilingual programs in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten class, or in after-school activities, to get students to learn English faster. Last month, the Arlington school district, where a third of the students are Hispanic, decided to give kindergartners who are not fluent in English two hours of teaching each day in their native languages in an effort to give those students an early start in closing the gap on test scores.
But no step is as extreme as California's. The rejection of bilingual education there comes at a time when California is undergoing a dramatic and rapid change in its population, which will soon see no racial or ethnic group whites included constituting the majority.
And already, a legal battle is being waged to stop the measure from taking effect. Yesterday, a coalition of education and civil rights groups asked a federal court to block the measure, arguing that it will deny vital educational services to immigrant students.
Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software millionaire who orchestrated the campaign for Proposition 227, said the measure is constitutionally "ironclad."
Still, even if the measure survives court challenges, there are also signs that some California teachers who oppose the change to English immersion will keep teaching in Spanish. More than 1,500 teachers in the state have signed a petition vowing to fight, or ignore, what Proposition 227 requires.
"This is not going to work," said Ambrosio Rodriguez, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "You cannot expect all of these students, or even most of them, will be able in just a year to know English so well that they will be able to do well in other classes. Bilingual education has problems, and Latino parents are frustrated, but telling them that this is a good way to go is a lie."
Before Tuesday's election, several polls suggested that a strong majority of Hispanic voters would embrace Proposition 227. But in exit polling conducted by CNN and the Los Angeles Times, less than 40 percent said they voted for the measure. Many of those who did not support Proposition 227 said they fear it will lead to discrimination against students who do not speak English fluently, or further diminish their opportunities for academic success.
Across the country, Hispanic students have a dropout rate that is much higher than that of any other racial group.
"This strips away all the flexibility that parents and school districts now have to decide what kind of program is right for these students," Rodriguez said.
But other Hispanic parents and activists contend that bilingual programs are rife with bureaucratic waste and that the students enrolled in them don't learn English quickly enough. They say they are willing to try a radical new course of action.
Eva Castrorena, 42, is among them. She cares for children at the Las Familias del Pueblo family center in the garment district of Los Angeles, where poor immigrant parents boycotted a local elementary school several years ago to get their children out of bilingual programs. Castrorena came to the United States from Mexico seven years ago and has two sons, ages 13 and 16.
"I supported this position because the kids need more English," she said in a heavy accent. "For better education and their future, they need to speak better English.
"It was very slow with bilingual education. The children learned Spanish not very well and English not very well. I want my sons to go to the university."
Booth reported from California. Special correspondent Cassandra Stern in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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