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With the Whipping Boy of Bilingual Ed Out, Heat Is Now on the System

Prop. 227: School boards, principals all will be held accountable for transitioning students into mainstream.

June 05, 1998|HARRY P. PACHON | Harry P. Pachon is a professor of political studies at Pitzer College and the Claremont Graduate University and president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute

The California electorate--the state's fourth branch of government--has spoken on the issue of bilingual education by soundly endorsing Proposition 227, which would abolish the current system of bilingual education.

Predictably, opponents led by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund went to court Wednesday to block implementation of the anti-bilingual initiative, while some educators vowed to defy it. We also shouldn't be surprised if other states begin similar measures, and we can expect Congress to take the signal from California as an excuse to hack the federal budget for such programs.

In the meantime, it would be easy for Latinos and other immigrant communities with large numbers of limited-English-speaking children to view the vote as a stunning defeat and a repudiation of their role in American society.

But the passage of the initiative is not the racially polarizing event that it appears to be on first blush, and its implementation, if it ever comes to that, may offer Latinos and others a unique opportunity to exact real benefits for their children in the public schools.

On the issue of ethnicity, it comes as no surprise that "yes" and "no" votes crossed ethnic lines, more so than the vote on Proposition 187, which dealt with the issue of public benefits for immigrants, or on Proposition 209, which eliminated state-sponsored affirmative action. Sure, the majority of Latinos voted against Proposition 227, while the majority of white non-Latinos voted for it. In Southern California, you can easily predict how a city voted by looking at the number of Latinos in that municipality. Proposition 227 lost in Huntington Park, for example, by a margin of 1 to 2, while in Rancho Palos Verdes it won 3 to 1. But statewide, 37% of Latinos voted "yes," a significant share. Moreover, in a refreshing move, the gubernatorial candidates went out of their way to express opposition to the initiative, a brave stand in light of Tuesday's more than 60% "yes" vote

The support Proposition 227 did enjoy from the Latino community highlights that community's genuine and pressing desire for its children to learn English, even if for some it means tossing out the baby with the bathwater by doing away with bilingual ed. That is the message policymakers in Sacramento and educators in local communities should hear loud and clear.

If we take a step back, it's possible to assess why bilingual education became so unpopular. At the very heart of the issue are the political semantics of bilingual education. "Bilingual" to most people means fluency in two languages. That differs with the educational definition, a pedagogic approach utilizing the language of the home to transition the child into another language. But the bilingual education establishment failed to realize how visceral the issue of English language is to many Americans and how necessary it is to keep these two concepts separate.

The bilingual education establishment also should be taken to task by the Latino community, which has the largest number of children in these programs, for not offering accountability and exemplary models of success. Why did it take so long for the successes of bilingual education in Calexico, Santa Ana or Ontario to be brought to light?

In any case, for Latinos and other immigrant communities, the opportunity presented by the initiative's passage is the spotlight it throws on the inadequacies of California's mainstream public education system in teaching English to their children. Too often bilingual education was used as the sop to demonstrate a school district's concern for teaching English. Now, with the possibility of bilingual ed disappearing, school boards, superintendents and principals all will feel the need to be accountable for effectively transitioning children with limited English proficiency into mainstream classrooms.

Parents, advocacy groups and the media will be paying close and critical attention to how the state's public education system fulfills the task of teaching these children now that the whipping boy of bilingual education has been thrown out.

With the opportunity for real gains comes high risks. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was the architect of the Great Society programs in the 1960s, was purported to have said that any idiot can tear a house down, but it's a different matter to build one. Now that 227 sponsor Ron Unz and his ilk have torn the bilingual ed house down, let's hope that they show the same commitment to helping build a structure that truly provides equal educational opportunity for the hundreds of thousands of Latino and other limited-English-speaking children in the state.

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