Article Published in the Human Events
Maybe it’s time for Easterners to quit sneering that California’s the Left Coast, the spawning grounds for loony notions that eventually sweep the nation. Once again, Californians’ exercise of direct democracy is leading the nation back to common sense. Citizens’ initiatives and referenda led to curbs on excessive property taxation and affirmative action. Now, California’s resounding (61-to-39 percent) approval of the June, 1998, “English for the Children” ballot proposition is inspiring action across the country to reform bilingual education.
Bilingual education got started in 1968 as a relatively innocuous attempt by a liberal Texas senator, Ralph Yarborough, to improve the odds that poor Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans would stay in school and graduate. The intent was to make those children fully literate in English. But the reality is quite different after 30 years of militant separatism and self-esteem emphasis. Now, there’s little that’s bilingual about bilingual education because children deemed “limited English proficient” (LEP) are segregated into classes taught almost exclusively in their native language (or, more precisely, their parents’). And there they stay for seven years, eight years, or even longer. Instead of learning English, which most children do readily when immersed in it from the get-go, they effectively enter a linguistic ghetto, which limits their ability to complete an education, land a good job, function as first-class citizens, and navigate the Internet.
But look what’s been happening since California’s Proposition 227 effectively ended routine placements of pupils in bilingual education:
- The Arizona legislature has passed a reform bill requiring parental consent up front before a child may be enrolled in bilingual or English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. This assertion of parental rights is crucial, because in some instances immigrant parents whose children already have learned English have been consigned to the native-language-only classes, despite vigorous protests by parents. In addition, Arizona would strengthen parents’ hands by compelling principals to remove students from these programs within five days’ of a parent’s request. Arizonans also are gathering signatures to put their own “English for the Children” proposition on the 2000 ballot.
- Connecticut lawmakers are considering a 30-month limit on all bilingual programs, while Chicago and Denver public schools have unveiled plans to restrict the time students spend in such programs to no more than three years.
- In Massachusetts, the State Board of Education voted to forbid local districts from excluding bilingual students from taking the Iowa Reading Test. That is significant because it will oblige schools to teach English, lest their test scores flag.
Hispanic parents were way ahead of the game in recognizing that their children learn English fast and that they need to do so to get ahead. At 9th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, parents got so riled about being stonewalled by school officials that they held 90 children out of class for two weeks to force the school to start teaching English. It was after speaking with some of these parents that Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz realized how deeply discontent ran in the Hispanic community. He then launched the drive to get Prop. 227 on the ballot. Luisa Hernandez, a sweatshop worker from Mexico, with a 9-year-old enrolled at 9th Street Elementary, explained things this way to Reason magazine’s Glenn Garvin: “I want my daughter to learn English. All the exams for things like lawyers and doctors are in English. Without English, she would have to take a job like mine.”
California has the highest percentage of schools with LEP students (90 percent), followed by Arizona (87 percent) and Texas and New Mexico, each with about 77 percent. The fact that Californians have delivered a severe rebuke to bilingual education could even budge that immovable object: federal government policy.
The mammoth Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) is up for a five-year reauthorization and Title VII of it is the Bilingual Education Act. Title VII has favored programs that teach pupils in non-English “native” languages as opposed to alternatives favoring rapid acquisition of English. In February, Secretary of Education Richard Riley testified that school districts would have to ensure that LEP students reach a “three-year accountability goal” as part of new ESEA accountability requirements. That could oblige more districts to teach English earlier. However, Riley did not follow up with a strict three-year limit in his ESEA proposals. Indeed, the Clinton Administration speaketh with forked tongue: Riley opposed Prop 227 as “an educational straitjacket for teachers and parents.”
Congress has an opportunity to use the momentum from California to exercise unambiguous national leadership. One simple but effective step would be passage of the “Parents Know Best Act” proposed by Congressmen Salmon and Tancredo. Before a school district could place a child in bilingual instruction, it would have to obtain a parent’s consent.
Another important provision would require schools to immediately remove children from bilingual classes upon parental request.
One of the most devastating arguments against bilingual education is the toll it has taken on Hispanic students, who have a 30 percent high-school dropout rate — double that for blacks or whites. It’s simply harder to make it in school if one doesn’t know English. Yet, as with innumerable education fads shown to harm children, a vast industry springs up with a vested interest in perpetuating the program. In the case of bilingual education, this includes not only identity-group militants but armies of administrators, psychologists, textbook publishers, and trade associations of bilingual educators.
Our own review of Title VII bilingual grants shows how much tangential concerns like multicultural awareness and self-esteem enhancement have worked their way into funded programs. Here are two examples out of many:
- SSOW (Summer School on Wheels) trip to the rain forests of Costa Rica to offer LEP students new experiences. “Students gained valuable insights into the rain forests, animals, volcanoes, and the aspects of life in other countries,” explains the program’s Title VII grant report. “9 of the 14 students received passing grades for the trip,” the document states, and “overall the trip was a huge success for the children and parents and chaperones alike.” (Rocky Boy School District, Box Elder, Montana, $144,920 2-year Program Enhancement grant#T289950376, p.12)
- Developing educational software for students to use to develop written proficiency in Lakota (Sioux). Lakota is an oral language for which no standard orthography exists, so one had to be developed. Reasoned the program’s Title VII personnel, “It is important to note that the Lakota language and Sioux culture are a part of our national heritage and programs such as this will ensure this language and culture will not be lost.” (Takini School, Howes, South Daokota. $240,039 4-year Comprehensive School grant #T90U50059, p. 13).
Federal programs built up over 30 years tend not to disappear overnight. So it figures to be with bilingual education. But reform of its abuses is becoming one of the hottest public-policy movements in the USA. And for that Californians deserve a share of the credit.
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