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The Bilingual Lobby Is Back

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Having to ask parents to sign a consent form should not be considered a burden -- and yet activists have put Proposition 58 on the November ballot so that they can relieve themselves of that pedestrian challenge. In 1998, 61 percent of Californians passed Proposition 227, which replaced bilingual education with English immersion classes. Prop. 227 allows parents to opt their children out of immersion classes, if they sign a form. "We have to get waivers from every family every spring," San Francisco school board member Emily Murase told The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board. She talked as if asking parents to sign a consent form is daunting. The waivers are "barriers" which produce a "chilling effect," said Democratic state Sen. Ricardo Lara. Prop. 58 would remove this mandate.


Lara himself was in English immersion and "happened to excel," but some of his siblings fared better in bilingual classes, he said. Prop. 227 allowed parents to opt their children out of immersion classes if they could find bilingual classes.

Meanwhile, it's important to remember the reason voters approved Prop. 227. Before 1998, countless English learners were parked in a multiyear bilingual system that failed to teach them English and, hence, failed them in other subjects as well. There were horror stories about English-speaking students wasting away in bilingual courses because of their Spanish surnames, and of students who spent years in public schools without learning the basics. Parents who tried to steer their children into English-immersion classes often got nowhere because school administrators were convinced they had to teach students in their native language first. As one activist in the Latino community told me in 1997, the problem with bilingual education is that it is "misnamed. It should have been named Spanish."

English immersion placed limited-English students in classes where they could absorb a new language quickly. Gone was the notion that it would take five, even 10, years to move English learners into regular classes. Within five years of Prop. 227's passage, the number of limited-English students who could speak English proficiently tripled. Math scores for English immersion students rose. The measure brought about the rare educational reform that demonstrably improved student learning.


All of this happened because of Ron Unz, a rich tech geek who had challenged then-Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 GOP primary and lost. Later, appalled at the second-class education to which immigrant children were consigned, Unz conceived the idea of a ballot measure to make English-immersion -- not bilingual -- education the standard approach. For his trouble, critics called Unz every name in the book: anti-immigrant, racist, nativist -- you get the picture. But Unz soldiered on. At the end of the day, Unz did more for immigrant students than the activists who claimed to have their best interests at heart.

Now the bilingual lobby is back. Unz believes Prop. 227 is a victim of its amazing success. "Things have worked out so well over the last 18 years," Unz told The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, that he believes people have forgotten how dysfunctional the bilingual system was. Voters may think that a vote for Prop. 58 is a vote to broaden choices, but the choice is there, if only parents sign a waiver. And the signed-waiver provision was essential because bilingual teachers had seen it as their duty to steer students into bilingual education, whether their families liked it or not.


I am no English-only advocate. Indeed, I agree with Lara and other Prop. 58 supporters that bilingual students have an edge when they embark on a career. California public schools should encourage students to learn more than one language: That's the perfect-world scenario. The real-world scenario, before 1998, however, was that bilingual students often were monolingual; they were not fluent in English. They were victims of a well-intended social experiment that doomed them to lag behind native English speakers.

I believe the bilingual courses Murase extolled have worked well for San Francisco students. When a program works, parents want to enroll their children in it, as we see in San Francisco. But I have doubts if high-performing bilingual programs can be replicated across the state. I remember how vociferously bilingual believers defended an approach that shortchanged English learners, because they cared more about immigrant children learning Spanish than English. If a signed waiver is a barrier, then people bright enough to develop successful bilingual courses should find ways to surmount that obstacle -- unless target parents don't buy their honeyed words.


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