Surprise! Not.

Posted: Sep 26, 2000 12:00 AM
My friend Melinda Sidak says that one of the nice things about being a conservative is that headlines almost never surprise you: Welfare reform does not result in widespread starvation; English immersion serves students better than bilingual education; inner-city students who get vouchers show rapid academic success as compared with peers who remain in public schools. No kidding. To be liberal, on the other hand, is to scratch your head in perplexity at the mystery of unfolding events. The New York Times, for instance, has run the following headlines within the past two years "Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops" and "Communism Still Looms as Evil to Miami Cubans." How strange. Reports from the front suggest that while conservative rhetoric may no longer ring voters' bells, conservative ideas are thriving. California is a perfect example. Though Republicans are doing poorly statewide and George W. Bush is considered an underdog there, California has stepped out on a limb on a number of vexing political questions. Through initiatives, the state has repealed government mandated affirmative action and racial set-asides, ended bilingual education and attempted to deny government benefits to illegal immigrants. Proposition 187, which would have denied benefits to those here illegally always seemed a perfectly reasonable policy to me (not so very long ago, even legal immigrants were required to prove that they would not become a public charge), but California Republicans have paid dearly for it. Democrats successfully characterized the initiative as anti-Hispanic. Thereafter, Hispanic support for Republican candidates plunged and has remained low. But the initiative to end bilingual education has been a different story. Though vilified by Democrats as another Republican attack upon Hispanics, it received widespread support among Hispanic parents (though a last-minute TV campaign against it just before the election drove Hispanic support below 50 percent). Liberals like bilingual education for three reasons: 1) it provides positions for more teachers; 2) it is perceived as "helping" a minority population; and 3) it denies that the larger society -- mostly white and English speaking -- must be accommodated. As to No. 1, there is no question that if students are placed in English immersion, some Spanish-speaking teachers will be out of work. But the experiment with bilingual education, underway for 30 years, suggests that far from helping immigrant children, it actually held them back. And this is related to No. 3, because even assuming, as so many advocates of bilingualism do, that most Americans are racist, inhospitable, arrogant and overweening people with no appreciation for other cultures or peoples, they are still the vast majority of employers. And if children emerge from American public schools unable to speak English, their life prospects are significantly diminished. There is recent data to suggest that California's experiment with English immersion is working well (though, as Ben Wildavsky of U.S. News and World Report notes, the data are very squishy at this early stage). According to the Center for Equal Opportunity (, after two years of English-immersion, limited English proficient students in California districts that eliminated bilingual education made huge gains in English reading and writing as well as in math, compared with those who remained in bilingual classes. If this trend holds, a great victory for conservatism (to say nothing of the kids) will have been achieved. The news from the voucher front is also encouraging. According to research conducted by the John F. Kennedy School of Government, African-American students who used vouchers to attend private schools showed academic improvement over their peers in public schools within six to seven months of making the change. In Dayton, Ohio, black students entering private school gained seven points in math skills and five points in reading. As for the education solutions proposed by Democrats -- more money, better facilities and smaller classes -- Kansas City provides a cautionary tale. Fourteen years ago, a federal judge required the city to spend $11,700 per pupil, build beautiful new buildings (including one with an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room), increase teacher salaries and reduce class sizes. The results? Kansas City spent $2 billion. But scores did not rise a single point, the white/black gap in performance did not close and integration was diminished, not increased.