What Now for Bilingual Education?

By James Crawford

Teachers in Los Angeles wear gags at a July board of educators meeting to protest the passages of Proposition 227. Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Time Photo

Last June, when Californians approved Proposition 227 – an initiative that mandates English-only instruction in public schools – it was unclear whether they meant to outlaw bilingual education. The ballot summary was vague, and few voters seemed to read the fine print.

Opinion polls reported contradictory findings about voters’ intentions. Most respondents endorsed flexibility for local school districts in educating limited-English-proficient (LEP) children. But on election day, 61% cast their ballots for a single statewide approach. So perhaps it is fitting that, months later, the impact of Proposition 227 remains contradictory as well.

One thing is clear: the new law has been disruptive for schools, confusing for teachers, and traumatic for students. While its implementation varies from district to district, this year English learners are getting far less help in their native tongues. Many have been removed from successful programs and placed in a crash course in English.

Yet some bilingual education survives, thanks to continuing support from parents and educators.

The initiative itself is ambiguous. It requires that LEP students be taught “overwhelmingly in English” through a “sheltered immersion” approach “not normally intended to exceed one year.” Once they have acquired “a good working knowledge of English,” children must be transferred to mainstream classrooms. After 30 days of English-only instruction – no exceptions – parents may request “waivers” of the rule, but a child under age 10 must have “special needs” to qualify for bilingual instruction.

None of these terms is clearly defined and the State Board of Education has offered minimal guidance. Some districts have exploited the waiver provision to keep bilingual classrooms intact. Others have virtually banned the use of native languages, whether parents request it or not. Many fall somewhere in between, offering “support” – but no reading instruction – in Spanish, Cantonese, Korean, and other languages.

Nearly all parents have sought waivers at some schools; none at others. According to Norm Gold of the California Department of Education, their preferences seem to depend on how well bilingual education worked locally before Proposition 227. “Two-way” bilingual programs, which include English-speaking children learning a second language, are especially in demand. Several have survived by converting to charter school or alternative school status.

A few districts remain under federal court orders and consent agreements to provide bilingual education. San Francisco, whose civil rights’ violations led to the landmark Lau v. Nichols ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, is still a defendant in that 1974 case. The Lau decision did not mandate bilingual education per se – only some kind of “affirmative steps” to overcome language barriers. Nevertheless, the district agreed to try bilingual education and soon became a believer in methodologies that foster fluency in two languages. This approach is so popular that enrollment in San Francisco’s bilingual classrooms actually increased this year, says assistant superintendent Rosita Apodaca. “It’s going to be a cold day in hell when parents agree to give up this right,” she said.

Elsewhere, however, the right to choose a bilingual education remains in jeopardy.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who bankrolled Proposition 227, has criticized districts for granting too many parental waivers and for using too little English. He has vowed to file lawsuits to enforce a strict interpretation of the law. Under a provision that authorizes financial damages against resisters, Unz warns that teachers and administrators could “lose their homes and be forced into bankruptcy.” These threats have created “an overlay of fear” in many districts, says one school official who asked not to be identified. “People feel that Unz is personally looking over their shoulder” on every decision regarding English learners.

Meanwhile, opponents have sued to overturn Proposition 227 on civil-rights and constitutional grounds. But a federal judge denied advocates’ bid for an injunction against the initiative, ruling that no “irreparable harm” to students had yet been shown.

Opponents argue that Proposition 227 “transforms a watchdog into a wolf.” The state of California, which previously prodded districts to meet their obligations under Lau – to give children equal access to the curriculum while they are learning English – must now restrict those efforts. School systems that refuse to dismantle bilingual programs could lose state subsidies.

Proposition 227 took effect 60 days after the vote. This left schools little time to buy materials or train staff, much less design programs of “sheltered English immersion” – a model that has no record of success. Research has never documented any methodology capable of meeting the new standard: proficiency in a second language within 180 school days. Thus teachers face a “professional dilemma,” observes Jill Kerper Mora of San Diego State University. While they want to do their best for LEP children, political meddlers are forcing them “to implement a program they cannot believe in because its underlying assumptions violate the theories and principles of effective education for language minority students,” she said (see related article).

At the same time, to the extent that schools make the best of a bad law, they weaken the civil rights case against the proposition and discourage voters from reconsidering their decision. Barring another initiative to repeal Proposition 227, any changes will require a two-thirds majority in the legislature. Neither a new initiative nor a legislative override appears likely in the near term.

Nationwide Impact

California public schools enrolled more than 1.4 million English learners last fall – six times the number in 1978 – representing one-quarter of all students, K-12, and one-third of those entering the first grade. With 42% of the LEP students nationwide, California is inevitably a trend-setter in bilingual education, both pedagogically and politically. Proposition 227 has shut down not only some excellent programs but also a source of continuing innovations. In addition, it has encouraged anti-bilingual movements across the country.

Hoping to build on his victory in California, Ron Unz has already launched a campaign for English-only schooling in Arizona. Similar efforts are possible in other states that make laws by ballot initiative, such as Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts.

In Congress, House Republicans have taken up the cause. Last summer they passed a bill to end federal grants for bilingual education, turn funding decisions over to the states, limit civil rights enforcement, and require schools to mainstream English learners within two years. Without opposition from the Clinton Administration, which kept these provisions out of the 1999 budget agreement, the 30-year-old program could have been destroyed. This year it will face further challenges, as the Bilingual Education Act comes up for reauthorization.

Yet many Republicans are having second thoughts about spearheading this “wedge issue.” In the November elections, they lost major offices in California, as Latinos voted in record numbers and three out of four backed Democratic candidates. By contrast, in Texas and Florida, the sons of former President Bush garnered substantial Hispanic support in winning their gubernatorial races. These Republicans campaigned extensively in Spanish and Governor George W. Bush made a special point of supporting bilingual education in Texas.

Still, as the California initiative demonstrates, the appeal of anti-bilingual measures can cross party lines.

Latino attitudes figured as a key issue in the Proposition 227 campaign. But their support for bilingual education seemed far from clear-cut. The first Los Angeles Times poll on the issue, in October 1997, found that 84% of Latinos favored the initiative, as compared with 80% of all respondents. It continued to report similar results until the eve of the vote.

Ron Unz claimed he was inspired by a group of Spanish-speaking immigrants in Los Angeles, who had pulled their children out of the Ninth Street School to demand English-only instruction. Their 1996 boycott continued to receive extensive attention from the news media (unlike parent protests on behalf of bilingual education). Anecdotes about immigrants who favored rapid English acquisition featured prominently in coverage of the 227 campaign.

For many voters, such reports raised a natural question: “If the parents of children in bilingual education don’t support the program, why should I?” They also seemed to discourage political allies, including Latinos, from coming to its defense. Those who finally did speak out against the initiative did so cautiously, noting the need to “reform” bilingual programs.

The premise turned out to be false. On election day Latinos voted nearly 2-1 against Proposition 227.

This came as no surprise to experts in surveying Hispanic opinion. According to Antonio Gonz?lez of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the mainstream pollsters use “crude sampling techniques” that have repeatedly exaggerated Latino support for measures like Proposition 187, California’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, and Proposition 209, its blow to affirmative action.

What’s more, it turned out that the Ninth Street boycott was no spontaneous uprising. The protest was orchestrated by an anti-bilingual activist who ran a day care center on which the parents depended. Whether they freely chose to remove their children from bilingual education remains a matter of dispute.

There is no question, however, that a confrontation at Ninth Street was unnecessary. “I was in shock,” recalls principal Eleanor Vargas Page. All the parents needed to do was come and ask for a transfer to the school’s intensive-English program – their right under California law. But previously, none had ever questioned bilingual education. “The conflict was not here in the school,” she believes. “The complaints were initiated by [an outsider], not by the parents.”

Nevertheless, the Ninth Street story became a powerful myth. No doubt it contributed to the victory of Proposition 227.

English Only, Phase 2

Unz’s line of attack against bilingual education illustrates a new strategy by English-only advocates. Rather than criticizing immigrants for speaking other languages, Unz posed as their advocate against unresponsive schools. Instead of flag-waving rhetoric about English as “our common bond,” he emphasized issues of educational effectiveness. He called his initiative “English for the Children” – a goal that none would disparage, least of all parents.

Unz could claim “pro-immigrant” credentials as a Republican who had spoken out against Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-immigrant initiative. For Proposition 227, he made a point of recruiting prominent Latinos and Asians to help lead his campaign, including Jaime Escalante, the legendary math teacher of Stand and Deliver fame. He even spurned the support of Governor Pete Wilson, who had exacerbated California’s ethnic divisions by catering to the “nativist” vote.

These divisions remain strong. Many Anglos resent bilingual education as a symbol of unwanted changes brought on by immigration. To win their votes, Unz had no need to address these resentments directly. And by avoiding nativist appeals, he inoculated his campaign against charges of racism.

In 1994, after unsuccessfully challenging Wilson in the Republican primary, Unz elaborated his strategic thinking for Policy Review, the journal of the Heritage Foundation. He called on fellow conservatives to stop demonizing immigrants and to wake up to demographic realities in states like California, where non-Hispanic whites are headed for minority status. “A dominant political alliance of Asians, Hispanics, and conservative Anglos” was possible, Unz argued, if Republicans stressed “core policies that would serve to unite rather than divide” these groups on issues like welfare, crime, abortion, and taxation. At the same time, he wrote that “we must … eliminate the native-language instruction and divisive multicultural programs that could fragment our society.”

Proposition 227 became, in effect, a test-drive of this strategy. Could the fears of English speakers be assuaged without alienating too many language minorities? Was opportunity-through-assimilation an idea that could be sold to prosperous immigrants and non-immigrants alike? Would it be possible to attack bilingual education on behalf of the groups it was designed to benefit, as a “well-intentioned” program that was failing to teach English?

Judging by the results, his approach has a broader appeal than the politics of resentment that launched the English-only movement in the 1980s. Unz’s initiative passed easily in an election whose turnout was disproportionately liberal and Democratic, while other conservative measures, such as restrictions on union political spending, were defeated.

Bilingual Misconceptions

Unz hammered repeatedly at a California Department of Education statistic showing that only 6% to 7% of LEP children scored high enough to be “redesignated” as fluent in English each year. That meant a “95 percent failure rate,” he charged in a memorable sound-bite. Press coverage rarely noted that only 30% of these students were enrolled in bilingual classrooms and only 20% had fully certified teachers. (Statewide the bilingual teacher shortage was estimated at 25,000 last year.) It made more sense to blame the “failure” on too little instruction in the home language rather than too much – but the press sidestepped this obvious fact.

Proposition 227’s mandate of one year to learn English is, of course, an arbitrary and unrealistic goal. Educators understand that, while LEP children tend to acquire “playground English” quickly, they normally need four or more years to acquire the complex second-language skills needed for academic success. The most successful bilingual programs feature a gradual transition rather than a radical break with the native tongue. After all, how quickly students master English is less important than how well they achieve in the long term. Bilingual instruction enables them to do grade-level work in other subjects – without sacrificing skills in their first language – while they learn English.

Fluent bilingualism is an obvious career advantage; it may also provide a cognitive edge. A 1998 study in San Francisco found that students redesignated as fluent in English – after an average of 4.8 years in special programs – outscored all other groups, including native English speakers. Similar patterns were evident in other districts on state-mandated achievement tests.

Yet most Californians understood none of this. Unfortunately, the debate over Proposition 227 did little to educate them.

Changing the Subject

Bilingual education advocates faced a daunting task. Starting late and trailing badly in the polls, with limited resources and millions of voters to reach, many despaired of changing enough minds to make a difference.

For years they had paid little attention to the program’s public image. Instead, the California Association for Bilingual Education relied on Latinos in the Assembly to block “reform” efforts. These bills, which became increasingly bipartisan over the years, sought to lift state mandates for the use of native-language instruction in programs for English learners.

Twenty years earlier, the mandates had been necessary to force most districts to try bilingual approaches. Some remained resistant, especially in conservative areas like Orange County and the Central Valley, where language minorities had limited political clout. But in large urban districts, bilingual education was well established.

So a compromise allowing “local flexibility” – along with accountability mechanisms requiring schools to show results for alternative approaches – might have made little difference, pedagogically speaking. Politically, however, it might have taken the steam out of Proposition 227.

Bilingual educators’ refusal to compromise proved politically damaging. Critics stereotyped them as a “self-serving bureaucracy,” motivated by a desire to save their jobs rather than to serve children. Press accounts highlighted the state’s subsidies for each LEP student ($340 in 1997), suggesting that schools had a financial incentive to delay their English acquisition.

Most Californians had never heard the pedagogical case for bilingual education. Suddenly, they were being asked to decide its fate. With the June vote approaching, was it feasible to provide them with a crash course?

Political consultants advised a diversionary strategy. Given the demographics of California’s electorate, they argued, the “No on 227” campaign could not win by appealing to Latinos, Asians, and progressives alone. It would have to convince key swing voters – defined as “Republican women over 50” – that Unz’s initiative was just too extreme. Getting bogged down in a debate over bilingual education would be futile, they concluded.

As a result, the “No on 227” campaign made a strategic decision: instead of challenging the conventional wisdom that bilingual education did not work and was not supported by Latinos, focus on what was wrong with Proposition 227. In short: “Don’t defend bilingual education.”

Whenever the pedagogical merits of bilingual education came up in public debates or interviews, spokespersons for the “No on 227” campaign tried to change the subject. Journalists found this frustrating. They did not stop reporting Unz’s charges about bilingual education. But, without help from the campaign, they rarely provided effective responses.

Some researchers and administrators tried to explain the rationale behind bilingual education and publicize its successes. And bilingual teachers and immigrant advocates organized at the grassroots. But lacking central coordination, these independent voices had little impact on the broader debate.

Unz cited the “Don’t Defend” strategy as evidence that bilingual education was indefensible.

Contrary to expectations, “No on 227” raised substantial resources, $4.7 million, enabling it to outspend supporters of Proposition 227 by nearly five to one. The lion’s share went into TV advertising, which singled out one provision of the initiative for special attack. To bolster his immigrant-friendly image, Unz had inserted into Proposition 227 a $50 million annual subsidy for adult English instruction. Members of the “No on 227” coalition had long supported such funding. But now they joined far right opponents of the initiative – who objected to any expenditures to benefit immigrants – in denouncing this diversion of funds from K-12 classrooms.

For most Californians, however, the vote on Proposition 227 remained a referendum on bilingual education. Unz claimed that bilingual education was failing. Many teachers, parents, and students knew better, but they were rarely mobilized to say so.

The outcome at the polls was predictable. The ultimate impact in the classroom remains to be determined.

James Crawford, author of Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of English Only, was an active opponent of Proposition 227. For further information on bilingual education, see his Language Policy Web Site at: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jwcrawford/