The Los Angeles Times Poll results should not have been surprising: An overwhelming 80% of voters questioned--whites, blacks, Asian Americans and Latinos--said California's schools should teach in English. Yet so politically charged has the debate over bilingual education become that many were astonished that Latinos, like everybody else, want children to acquire English as soon as possible.
Of course all parents want their children to succeed, and English is the language of success in this country. California public schools have the task of educating 1.38 million students who speak another language. This is nearly 25% of the state's public school enrollment. Successful academic achievement requires every student to master English. That is the ambitious goal of bilingual education.
The program works best when children who speak a language other than English learn side by side with children who speak English fluently. Each learns in both languages, taught by teachers who are fluent in both. This two-way immersion is the most effective form of bilingual instruction, but it is the least common because of a shortage of bilingual teachers and the difficulty of establishing a balance between English-speaking and non-English-speaking students.
California school districts operate a dozen good two-way programs, among them the Korean-English system at Cahuenga Elementary School near Los Angeles' Koreatown neighborhood. Cahuenga's bilingual third-graders, taking standardized reading tests in English, surpassed the national average score and more than doubled the district's average for English-speaking children. Unfortunately, this approach is the exception.
The initial classroom experience is significant. When children are taught first in their primary language, they start learning on their first day of school. They can ask the teacher questions. They fit in. They feel welcome--in contrast to the childhood experience of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who says she entered school speaking only Spanish and ended up "losing" three years during her early English-only education. Molina and millions like her suffered through the old sink-or-swim method before Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 guaranteed equal access to public education for language minorities.
Hodgepodge Approach Is a Trap
Most researchers agree that children who begin their studies in a language they understand can transfer their scholastic skills to their new language. Well-planned and implemented bilingual education programs work. But the hodgepodge of approaches in California trap too many children far too long in classes taught in their primary language, mostly Spanish, before they move into mainstream English-only classes. They trickle out of bilingual programs at a disappointing rate of 7% a year. Many stay seven years in bilingual classrooms, far too long. Five years, the current target in the Los Angeles Unified School District for moving students to English-only, is also too long.
Ruben Zacarias, the bilingual superintendent of the LAUSD, has said that three years should be the goal for transfers. We agree.
This issue cannot be fully understood without mention of the impetus for the intensifying debate--the proposed "English for the Children" initiative, intended for the June 1998 ballot. This measure--not yet qualified for the ballot--would dismantle current bilingual programs in the schools and permit just one year of intensive, special instruction in English unless parents specifically sought a waiver to place or keep their child in bilingual classes. "English for the Children" is bankrolled by Ron K. Unz, a former Republican gubernatorial hopeful and Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He cites as his motivation last year's Latino parent boycott of the Ninth Street Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles. Parents pulled their children out of bilingual classes for two weeks to make their point: They wanted their sons and daughters taught in English. It is school bureaucrats unwilling to be flexible and the lobbied-'til-it-can't-act Legislature that Unz can thank for the apparent early and strong support for his initiative.