The California Senate Education Committee voted last week to put a proposition on the November 2016 ballot that would reinstate bilingual education to the state by repealing Prop. 227, which had largely eliminated bilingual education in California. Ron Unz, who authored Prop. 227, is fighting mad, noting that even members of the GOP abandoned the support of English in California’s schools.
Unz writes that his “English for the Children” initiative effort in 1997 was opposed by nearly all the legislators at the time, both Democrat and Republican, including the Chairman of the state Republican Party, the Chairman of the state Democratic Party, and all four party leaders in the State Senate and Assembly. They were joined by President Bill Clinton, who visited California to assist their efforts, as well as all four candidates for governor, both Democrat and Republican, who made a television ad denouncing Unz’s efforts. Unz adds:
We were opposed by every California union, every political slate, and almost every newspaper editorial board, and were outspent on advertising by a ratio of 25-to-1. But despite this daunting array of influential opponents, our initiative still passed with one of the largest political landslides of any contested measure in state history, winning over 61 percent of the vote.
Unz’s victory was then attacked by its opponents in the courtroom, but four separate federal judges ruled in favor of Prop. 227. The year after Prop. 227 passed, the academic test scores for more than one million immigrant students in California skyrocketed. In 2000, the New York Times even heralded the continuing rise in test scores. The founding president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators admitted that his thirty years of supporting bilingual education had been a mistake. He even went on CBS News and the PBS Newshour to say so.
Unz continues supporting his case:
During the first four years following the passage of Prop. 227, the academic performance of over a million immigrant schoolchildren taught in English roughly doubled, while those school districts that stubbornly retained their bilingual education programs showed no improvement whatsoever. English-learners in English immersion classes academically outperformed their counterparts in holdover bilingual education programs in every subject, every grade level, and every year, racking up [a] performance advantage of 80-to-0.
Meanwhile, Arizona voters joined their California brethren in November of 2000, passing a similar bill to Unz’s by a 26-point differential. Massachusetts joined the fray in 2002, passing “English” by a massive 32-point differential. In 2003, Latino parents in Santa Ana, CA, the most heavily Latino immigrant major city, were so irritated at Nativo Lopez, who was a rabid supporter of bilingual education, that he lost his election by 40 points.
The backlash at bilingual education was so strong that a new goal was developed: teaching Latino children English before they entered kindergarten. As the director of Santa Clara County’s child development programs said, “Our goal is that they [Latino immigrant children] become fluent in English by the time they’re ready for kindergarten… That’s where we’re trying to close the achievement gap, by supporting English so they can do well in school.”
So what happened? According to Unz:
Politics abhors a vacuum, and although almost everyone else has forgotten the topic of bilingual education over the last dozen years, the small number of bilingual zealots have remained just as committed as ever to their failed dogma. I doubt that there ever numbered more than just a few hundred hardcore bilingual activist supporters among California’s population of over thirty million, but their years of unopposed private lobbying and spurious academic research have now borne fruit. California politicians are hardly deep thinkers and term limits ensured that few of them had been prominent in public life during the late 1990s. Hence the 8-to-0 committee vote to reestablish bilingual education in California.
In reviewing the last twenty years of domestic policy battles in America, the replacement of bilingual education with English immersion in our public schools may rank as just about the only clear success for policies traditionally advocated by conservatives and Republicans – at least no other obvious example comes to mind. Meanwhile, the disastrous political choices made by California republicans during the 1990s have placed what was once the most powerful Republican state party in America on the very edge of irrelevance and a descent into minor-party status. For California Republicans to back the restoration of failed bilingual education programs would probably mark the final nail in their coffin, and rightfully so.