Soapbox

Prop. 58 would undo an English learning system that’s working

Karina Gutierrez teaches a third-grade class in Spanish at Thomas Edison Language Institute in Sacramento. Proposition 58 would ease some restrictions on bilingual education imposed by Proposition 227.
Karina Gutierrez teaches a third-grade class in Spanish at Thomas Edison Language Institute in Sacramento. Proposition 58 would ease some restrictions on bilingual education imposed by Proposition 227. rbenton@sacbee.com

The political amnesia produced by term limits sometimes leads politicians to repeat the exact same mistakes of their predecessors. Such is the case with Proposition 58.

Twenty years ago, Latino schoolchildren in California were being forced into Spanish-almost-only “bilingual education” classes despite their parents’ preference for English. Things became so bad that immigrant parents in Los Angeles boycotted their local elementary school for refusing to teach English.

Those shocking stories caught my attention. The next year a small group of us launched our Proposition 227 “English for the Children” initiative, recruiting renowned educator Jaime Escalante as honorary chairman.

Our measure required schools to teach English to children from the first day of classes and attracted enormous media coverage and overwhelming public support. We were opposed by nearly the entire political and educational establishment and outspent on advertising 25-to-1, but still won a landslide victory with 61 percent in 1998.

Within just a few months, hundreds of thousands of Latino schoolchildren were shifted from Spanish-language instruction into intensive English immersion. The remarkable improvement in their academic performance generated headlines up and down the state. The founding president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators admitted he’d been wrong for 30 years and became a convert to English immersion. Reed Hastings, who served as president of the State Board of Education, also changed his mind and donated money for a similar initiative in his home state of Massachusetts.

Proposition 227 never completely outlawed “bilingual education.” Immigrant parents who wanted to place their children in non-English programs could sign an annual written waiver. But since most preferred English, most of those programs disappeared.

Partly because of our initiative, Latino students are doing much better academically. Two decades after Proposition 209 outlawed affirmative action in California, national headlines announced that more Latinos than whites had been admitted to the prestigious University of California.

The issue has been dead and forgotten for the last dozen years. But the diehard supporters of bilingual education never gave up, and now they’re trying to return California to the failed system of 20 years ago.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara has sponsored Prop. 58, which would repeal much of our initiative. Lara claims that the biggest problem with the current system is that it’s much too difficult to persuade Latino parents to sign waivers placing their children in Spanish-language classes, especially if they’re offered English classes instead.

But that’s the whole point. If immigrant children can be placed in non-English classes without their parents’ written permission, we may once again see Latino parents forced to carry picket signs to get English classes for their children.

Let’s keep an educational system that works and defeat Proposition 58.

Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software developer, is chairman of English for the Children, which sponsored Proposition 227. He can be contacted at ronunz1@gmail.com.

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