In 1998, leftist activists ganged up on Proposition 227, which mandated English immersion classes for most limited-English students. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and California Teachers Association opposed the measure.
It didn't matter, as the Los Angeles Times had reported, that in the preceding year 1,150 state schools failed to promote any limited-English students to English fluency. President Clinton's Education Secretary Richard Riley told The San Francisco Chronicle the measure was a "disaster." Gray Davis, then a candidate for governor, opposed 227. So did his two Democratic rivals and state schools chief Delaine Eastin.
Activists accused then-Gov. Pete Wilson of race-baiting in supporting the "wedge" measure. Pundits warned that to the extent Republicans supported 227, the GOP would alienate Latino voters. GOP gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren came out against 227.
California voters approved the measure by 61 percent of the vote.
The voters, you see, wanted results, not excuses. Proposition 227 mandated that public schools place English learners in immersion classes, unless their parents opted for bilingual education classes.
Last week, the state Department of Education released figures that showed that the number of limited-English students who meet minimum standards in English skills rose to 34 percent in 2002 -- that's up from 11 percent in 2001.
English proficiency for students in bilingual education rose as well, if not as well as immersion students, from a lousy 3 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2002. The good news is that 227's focus on English seems to have rubbed off on the bilingual lobby.
Ron Unz, the millionaire techno-geek author of 227, cites state STAR test reading scores that show that the number of limited-English second-graders (not in bilingual ed) scoring above the national average doubled, from 18 percent in 1998 to 36 percent in 2002. In the same time frame, the reading scores of bilingual-ed second graders crept from 13 percent to 14 percent.
Math STAR scores rose from 34 percent to 51 percent for limited-English non-bilingual second-graders.
As Unz boasted, "What we're talking about is the largest controlled experiment in the history of American education" in "the largest state in America, and their test scores have doubled." Here I have to disagree. The largest experiment was bilingual education. It was nationwide. It failed year after year, yet the establishment kept pouring money into it while manufacturing excuses for rampant failure.
When Unz came along with his admittedly strict measure, activists and educrats said they agreed that bilingual education needed fixing; then they balked at any real solution.
Activists called 227 proponents "anti-immigrant." They charged that the campaign was out to hurt immigrant children. Some hinted, others came out and said, that the motive behind 227 was racist.
In the short run, the racist-baiting worked. A majority of Latino voters voted against 227.
But in the long run, the fear-and-smear campaign failed. Last month, voters in the heavily Latino Santa Ana Unified School District overwhelmingly recalled a school board member who had been a staunch advocate of bilingual education. Unz sees that recall as a Latino endorsement of his immersion mission.
In 1998, students heckled Unz. Activists ridiculed him. Educators scorned him. That's the thanks Unz got for spending his time and money for a measure that, it turns out, has eased the journey for hundreds of thousands of immigrant children toward the American dream.