This One Would Prohibit Bilingual Education
The next California proposition that may alter the national
political landscape is the proposed Ron Unz Initiative, which seeks to
ban all bilingual instruction in California public schools.
The Unz initiative calls for placing students with limited English
into English- only immersion classes for one year and thereafter
mainstreaming them into regular classrooms. It additionally calls for
holding teachers and administrators legally liable if they do not
implement the terms of the initiative.
Such an initiative, if it were to pass, says Josefina Tinajero, the
president of the National Association for Bilingual Educators, has the
potential to eliminate bilingual education nationally.
“It [‘s anti-bilingual mood] can be very contagious,” says Tinajero,
who is also a professor and assistant dean at the University of
Texas-El Paso. “Unz has said that if they win in California, they will
take their initiative to Washington, D.C.”
Opponents of the initiative see this as the third installment of an
anti-Latino and anti-people of color campaign that has originated in
California and has spread nationwide. The other initiatives were
Proposition 187 in 1994, which called for a series of anti-immigrant
measures, and Proposition 209 in 1996, which dismantled the state’s
affirmative action programs.
Bilingual education is threatened “because the proponents spread
lies and because most people don’t know the research,” says Tinajero,
who notes that Unz is not an educator.
A millionaire entrepreneur who lost the Republican nomination for
governor to Pete Wilson in 1996, Unz claims to have garnered 200,000
more signatures than the 600,000 needed to place the initiative on the
June 1998 primary ballot. Although the proposition has not officially
qualified for consideration by the voters, that qualification is
expected by the end of January.
Barbara Flores, a professor in the school of education at California
State University- San Bernardino, maintains that virtually all the
major research shows that bilingual education works and that immersion
– which she refers to as “sink or swim” – does not. She cited two
studies, the 1984 Ramirez study and the 1997 Collier and Thomas study,
as proof of her contention.
Flores, who teaches bilingual educators, recently said that the
initiative leaves “defenseless children denied [of] equal opportunity
under the guise of [an] ‘English- only’ initiative.”
And she adds, “Not only is the initiative anti-pedagogical, but it
is also unconstitutional. . . . This particular ‘sink or swim’ approach
has already been declared unconstitutional in the 1974 landmark case
[Lau v. Nichols].”
At that time, according to Flores, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that
the San Francisco School District violated “language minority”
children’s civil rights in denying equal access to the curriculum
through the exclusive use of English. The court ordered bilingual
education or programs teaching English as a second language as possible
Flores notes that an act from Congress (the Equal Educational
Opportunities Act) also bars discrimination as a result of language
Flores acknowledges that sound bilingual education programs are not
instantly successful. She cites Calexico, California, where 85 percent
of the high school graduates go on to higher education, as an example.
“And this did not happen overnight. Twenty-five years ago the School
Board of Education, the Superintendent of Schools, and the parents made
a commitment to support bilingual education and invest resources,
personnel, and policies to promote this goal,” she says.
According to Flores, it takes approximately eight to ten years to
turn around a school. That turnaround is accomplished by “having
teachers refocus their attitudes, their perceptions . . . working on
themselves and how they change their habitudes toward poverty kids of
If the Unz initiative were to pass, Flores says, it would dismantle bilingual teacher education programs.
“All the research that has been conducted on language learning would be for naught,” she worries.
University of California-Davis Professor Ada Sosa Ridell says that
one of the many goals of the Chicano movement was to have bilingual
education implemented nationwide.
“Now, these battles are to be refought,” she laments.
Ridell says that the Unz initiative should be defeated because,
among other things, it is a major intrusion of politics into
educational pedagogy and takes away all local school board control over
And Tinajero adds that the initiative not only doesn’t make sense, but that it comes at the wrong time.
“As a result of globalization, there’s a great need for bilingualism,” she says.
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