Ten years ago, most major California media opposed Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative that sought to end bilingual education. Unsurprisingly, the same media ignored the anniversary of the landmark ballot measure. In fact, virtually the only publication to take a serious look at 227’s ten-year record was The Economist, a British newsmagazine.
The brainchild of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, Proposition 227 won by a landslide 61 to 39 percent margin. The initiative drastically limited bilingual education, replacing it with structured English immersion (SEI). Bilingual education emphasizes the use of English-learner (EL) students’ native language for instruction in core subjects, while SEI requires teachers to teach primarily in English. The initiative did contain a loophole allowing parents to request waivers to keep their children in bilingual-education classes.
In the aftermath of Prop. 227 immigrant parents and local public-school educators often differed on how best to teach EL children. In Santa Ana in Southern California, while the number of students in bilingual-education classes fell by half, The Economist noted that, “Demand would have been even less had schools not prodded parents to request waivers for their children.” Against this push by their school establishment, parents in Santa Ana fought back.
In 2003, Santa Ana voters successfully recalled school board member Nativo Lopez, a strident political activist and a key proponent of waivers. In the recall election, led by working-class Hispanics, Lopez lost every precinct, including those overwhelmingly Hispanic. Today in Santa Ana, 22,000 EL students are being taught through SEI, while only a miniscule 646 are still taught through bilingual education.
The Economist pointed out that the educational disaster predicted by bilingual-education advocates never materialized. On the contrary, a five-year study of the effects of Prop. 227 sponsored by the California Department of Education found that, “Many of the educators we interviewed concluded that the overall effect of [Proposition 227] on the ELs has been positive – frequently emphasizing that it cast a spotlight on ELs as an important subpopulation and on the methods of instruction used for these students.” Despite this positive record, 227 opponents continue to impede implementation of the law.
English Immersion or Law Evasion?, a recent Pacific Research Institute (PRI) report, found that several state university teacher programs remain hotbeds of opposition to 227. Cal State Sacramento’s Bilingual Education/Multicultural Education Department (BMED) uses its own anthology, Bilingual Education: Introduction to the Education of English Learners, for some of its courses. The publication includes a chapter by a BMED faculty member describing her fight to save bilingual-education programs in schools.
Another chapter author states that the “institutionalization of the English-speaking worldview in the United States” has resulted in all other cultural and ethnic groups being “systematically repressed and relegated to subordinate status.” The remedy, according to the author, is to turn out politicized minority teachers “who can speak and instruct [students] in their native language” and who can ensure the “cultural integrity of their own people.”
Local school districts also undermine Prop. 227, as the PRI report points out. Districts refuse to reclassify many EL students as English fluent, even if they test proficient in English on state exams. The reason for the refusal to reclassify is simple and disturbing. The longer districts label a student and English learner, the more state and federal dollars a district gets.
In addition, several studies show that the native language of EL students is being used occasionally or even frequently in supposed English-immersion settings. Thus, schools may say they’re implementing 227, but that implementation may be watered down or even bilingual education by a different name.
Despite the guerrilla warfare of opponents, 227 has proven to be a step forward for EL students. However, as The Economist observes, these students still face a dysfunctional public-school system that often provides a dismal education for too many students.
No wonder then that a 2007 national poll found that 75 percent of Hispanic parents would use a school-choice voucher to send their children to a private school. Such overwhelming sentiment should serve as a wake-up call to the public-education establishment that Hispanics are not going to accept the education status quo for much longer.
Lance T. Izumi is Senior Fellow in California Studies and Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy (PRI), California’s premier free-market public-policy think tank based in San Francisco.