When Bilingualism Is a Dirty World

By Hanson, Gayle M. B. | Insight on the News, December 22, 1997 | Go to article overview

When Bilingualism Is a Dirty World


Hanson, Gayle M. B., Insight on the News


An unlikely coalition of Republicans, left-wing activists and Latino parents is amassing support for a 1998 ballot initiative that effectively would do away with bilingual education and replace it with English-immersion classes. The initiative radically would change education in California, which has the largest non-English-speaking student population in the country.

The English for the Children initiative, sponsored by Silicon Valley Republican Ron Unz -- who was bested by Pete Wilson in the 1994 GOP primary for governor -- already is emerging as a breakaway issue in the Golden State where 1.3 million students -- 23 percent of all enrolled -- are classified as not proficient in English.

Bilingual-education classes cost more than $300 million annually. Yet in any given year fewer than 7 percent of students enrolled in such programs are deemed proficient in English. "These programs are a complete failure," says Unz. "The money is being wasted."

Early polls show overwhelming numbers of Latino voters backing elimination of these programs that initially were designed to help their children. A Los Angeles Times poll on Oct. 15 showed overall support for the initiative already at 75 to 80 percent. Latino voters favored the initiative by 84 percent.

The campaign got another additional boost when Jaime Escalante, whose successes were depicted in the 1987 film Stand and Deliver starring Edward James Olmos, announced that he was joining the campaign as honorary chairman. Escalante, who long has worked to eliminate bilingual education and who rose to national prominence when he set out to prove that students from the East Los Angeles barrio could pass college-level advanced-placement examinations for calculus, is the highest-profile Latino educator in California, if not the country.

"It seems a real tragedy that in many cases our public schools are not teaching English to 5- or 6-year-old immigrant children, who are at an age when they can so easily learn the language," Escalante said.

Unz says he hopes that Escalante's support of the campaign will help shake loose support for the initiative from California's GOP leaders, who have been leery from the get-go. At the state GOP's semiannual convention in September, party chairman Michael Schroeder and other leaders vowed to withhold support for the initiative, even though that opposition to "bilingual education" has been part of state and national Republican Party platforms for two decades. The party rank and file voted to support the initiative, which received overwhelming backing from the convention floor.

Insiders say GOP leaders feared that the initiative could end up alienating even more Latino voters from the Republican Party than they lost to Democrats in the 1996 elections. Many also remember the early days of Proposition 187, which received initial support from Latino voters in the polls but ended up largely being viewed as anti-Latino by the time Election Day rolled around. Dispute about the vote aside, Democrat Loretta Sanchez defeated Republican Rep. Bob Dornan largely on a wave of anti-Proposition 187 Latino sentiment. With a rapidly growing Latino voter population moving to support Democrats, the GOP can ill-afford to lose any more support.

"The GOP leadership was been very cowardly on this," says Unz, "despite the fact that the abolition of bilingual education has been supported by the party for years." He points to the work of Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and director of the Las Familias del Pueblo community center, as being the person who galvanized him to take the initiative before the voters. Callaghan helped organize Mexican parents to demand English classrooms for their students. "Parents want their children to have good educations. They want them to go to Harvard. They need to be truly fluent and literate in English," she says.

The campaign is resonating strongly in communities throughout California, where parents find themselves battling an educational bureaucracy that is not always responsive to their needs.

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