California Referendum Mandates ‘English-Only’

June 2 Vote Could Set National Precedent

Bilingual kindergarten in California.

In 1967, California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed legislation authorizing bilingual education and ending a 95-year-old state mandate that “all schools shall be taught in the English language.” The bipartisan legislation passed during an era of militancy on civil rights issues and was based on evidence that English-only schooling had harmed Hispanic, Asian, and Native-American students. The 1960 Census showed, for example, that 50% of California’s Mexican-American residents aged 18-24 had dropped out of school before completing the 8th grade.

Now, 30 years later, a wealthy and politically ambitious California businessman by the name of Ron Unz wants to ban bilingual instruction and re-impose an English-only mandate on all state classrooms.

Unz is the man behind the so-called “English for the Children” initiative that will go before California voters on June 2. The ballot measure, officially known as Proposition 227, goes far beyond the symbolism of previous English-only campaigns and strikes at the heart of public education and the right to equal educational opportunity. Further, it is part of a national backlash against immigration and, if successful, could establish a chilling precedent for other districts and states with large numbers of students who do not speak English as their first language.

A former Republican gubernatorial candidate who lost to Pete Wilson in the 1994 GOP primary, Unz is a multimillionaire software developer from the Silicon Valley. He has no expertise in education. He recruited as co-author of the initiative Gloria Matta Tuchman, a first-grade teacher and former national board member of U.S. English, the leading supporter of English-only and official English policies in the United States.

If approved by California voters, the Unz initiative would require the placement of all public school pupils in “English-language classrooms.” The state’s limited-English-proficient (LEP) students — who currently number about 1.4 million — would “be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.” Bilingual education would be virtually eliminated.

“It is deceptive for Ron Unz to claim that ‘young children can easily acquire full fluency in a new language, such as English’,” argues James Lyons, executive director of the National Association of Bilingual Education (NABE). “Indeed, Mr. Unz has not proffered a single piece of evidence to support his claim of easy and rapid second-language learning or his proposal to limit special instructional programs for non-English-language students to generally no more than one year. Why? Because no evidence exists.”

Critics of the Unz initiative point out that it not only runs counter to educational research but will likely end up costing the taxpayers more money. According to California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, Unz would do nothing to save state resources currently earmarked for the education of LEP children. Instead, the English-only mandate would sacrifice the funding that California now receives under the federal Bilingual Education Act — $59 million last year — most of which goes directly to local school districts. By violating LEP children’s civil rights, the initiative would also imperil the total federal contribution to California schools — about $2.5 billion annually.

The Initiative’s Key Components

According to the National Association of Bilingual Education, the Unz initiative would:

  • Impose an inflexible, state-mandated curriculum for all LEP children, regardless of the wishes of parents, the recommendations of educators, or the decisions of local school boards;
  • Require an English-only methodology that’s politically fashionable but has no support in scientific research and no quality controls to ensure that students are learning;
  • Create chaos in regular classrooms by “mainstreaming” LEP students after just one year of English instruction;
  • Suggest to schools that during the year-long “sheltered English immersion programs” they group LEP students together on the basis of a student’s English proficiency, regardless of the student’s age;
  • Deny parental choice by making it practically impossible to obtain a waiver of the English-only rule;
  • Intimidate teachers and administrators with threats of lawsuits and financial penalties for using any language but English to assist a child;
  • Straightjacket the California legislature by requiring a two-thirds vote to amend the English-only mandate, making this radical experiment virtually impossible to modify or repeal.

Unz alleges that California’s current system for educating LEP students is “centered on use of native language instruction, with English being introduced to children only in later grades.” The reality is that most LEP students in the state are educated in English-only instructional programs. Fewer than one in three LEP students (32.49%) are in classes where native-language instruction is provided, according to the California Department of Education.

As the National Assocation of Bilingual Education notes in a recent analysis, “If the current system is failing, it’s likely because there’s too much — not too little — English-only instruction.”

Further, the Unz initiative ignores that bilingual education has several goals: the development of English language proficiency; the maintenance of one’s native language and the acquisition of true bilingualism; and the development of academic skills while English is learned. Research has shown that students with a strong academic background in their first language are more likely to develop high levels of English proficiency than those who do not have such an advantage.

“Yet no one can guarantee that English-only immersion will work,” according to James Crawford, a frequent writer on bilingual issues and the former Washington editor for Education Week. “No scientific evidence supports it. No reputable researcher has endorsed it. And certainly no educational program has lived up to Unz’s advertising — that immersion can make children ‘fluent in English … within months to a year.'”

One of the many troubling educational aspects of the Unz initiative is its view that a local school “shall be permitted to place in the same classroom English learners of different ages but whose degree of English proficiency is similar.”

Such a proposal, according to Lyons, “ignores the academic knowledge that students bring to the classroom.” “It does not admit the reality that LEP students enter California schools at different ages, with different levels of previous schooling. And finally, it ignores the fact that there is no correlation between a child’s level of English proficiency and the child’s level of subject matter knowledge. Little, if any, academic content can be taught and learned in a class containing both sixth and first graders. … Organizing instruction on the basis of student English proficiency is a prescription for student failure.”

The initiative also encourages the mixing of non-English speaking children of different native languages, without requiring the teacher to have any special training. Moreover, even where a teacher or aide speaks a child’s native language, the initiative prohibits communication with the child in that language.

Dismantling Programs

California has pioneered a number of innovative methods for teaching language-minority students. The Unz initiative would dismantle them. To be sure, success stories are not universal in bilingual education (or in any instructional program, for that matter). Yet their number is significant — and has been growing. “No one claims that bilingual instruction is a panacea,” Crawford writes. “[But] merely teaching children in their native tongue is no magical cure for the ills of today’s schools, as shown by underachievement of many English-speaking students.” (For a look at some of the research on bilingual education, check out the NABE web site at The site also provides links to other web pages explaining bilingual education.)

Opponents of the Unz initiative underscore that it would severely limit the abilities of all students to learn another language. Because the initiative makes a blanket directive that “all children [shall] be placed in English language classrooms,” there are severe restrictions to allowing students — whether LEP or native English-speaking — to study a foreign language.

Exceptions could be approved only under limited circumstances.

For instance, students would have to be at least 10 years old to qualify for non-English-language instruction. A similar restriction, adopted during an earlier period of xenophobia, was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court (see the related article on the history of bilingual education). Another exception is that students would have to score “at or above the state average for [their] grade level” in English.

Denying Choice

Current California regulations provide school districts with several options for teaching English to LEP students. These include English as a Second Language programs, maintenance bilingual education, sheltered English, two-way bilingual programs, submersion and transitional programs, among others. Under Unz, these options would be gone, replaced with the “English-only” approach.

As a result, LEP students would effectively be denied access to developmental bilingual education, except in cases so rare as to be almost meaningless. And English-proficient students would no longer have access to two-way bilingual education, an approach that develops bilingualism as well as academic excellence. If passed, the Unz initiative would outlaw more than 60 two-way programs in 32 school districts throughout California — regardless of their educational effectiveness or popularity with parents.

Under Unz, if children are under age 10 there is no meaningful option for a bilingual education. “Waivers” of the English-only rule would be denied to virtually all LEP students in grades K through 4, who currently make up 54% of California’s LEP enrollment. Exceptions would be permitted only for children with “special physical, emotional, psychological, or educational needs” — such as those judged to be learning disabled or mentally retarded.

Even in these cases, all LEP students would be kept in English-language classrooms for the first 30 days of each school year before any transfer could be approved — whatever their educational needs. Waivers would be available only for parents who “personally visit the school to apply” for them. Approval would be required — on a case-by-case basis — from a child’s teacher, principal, and the district superintendent of schools. Parents whose own English is limited would find it very difficult to negotiate this process. English-speaking parents would find it burdensome, but unavoidable if they want their children to study a foreign language.

Only schools that approved waivers for at least 20 students at the same grade level would be required to offer bilingual education. Otherwise, children with waivers would have to transfer to other schools for such instruction. Parents seeking waivers would have to reapply every fall. In addition, parents would have no rights to appeal administrative decisions.

Undermining Local Control

An English-only mandate would usurp the power of elected school boards to determine education policy based on local conditions. Today the California Department of Education gives school districts considerable flexibility in choosing programs for LEP students, as long as language barriers are addressed to ensure equal educational opportunity. Unz would end this flexibility.

Apart from the pros and cons of bilingual education, Unz would set a dangerous precedent, according to Crawford. “For the first time in the United States, the initiative process would be used to determine the curriculum of public schools, introducing politics into a job best left to professional educators and local officials. What would be the next target? Special education? Sex education? The teaching of evolution?”

At the same time, enforcing and administering the Unz initiative would be an educator’s nightmare, according to critics of the measure. It would increase paperwork, invite frivolous litigation, waste principals’ time, and divert attention from classroom needs. The waiver process alone would require a sizable bureaucracy. Some groups estimate that tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of California parents might apply. Responding to these applications would require teachers, principals, and superintendents to review each child’s individual case. School districts would have to prepare forms, keep records, and establish procedures to determine which children would qualify for the privilege of bilingual or foreign-language instruction and which would be denied. Every fall this process would have to be repeated.

Unz would also turn school administrators into language police, who would have to patrol classrooms to make sure no teacher used enough Spanish or Korean or Russian to provoke a lawsuit by English-only activists.

In effect, Unz would turn back the clock to a time when LEP children were denied an equal opportunity to learn — routinely held back, racially segregated, or mixed in English classes by age and grade without teachers trained to meet their needs and without assessments to monitor their progress.

“The Unz initiative campaign doubly debases democracy,” argues Lyons of NABE. “It is a campaign based on deception, and the initiative’s objective is the denial of fundamental rights.”

This article is adapted from analyses by the National Association of Bilingual Education and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.