Many of us in conservative and libertarian circles are appalled by some of Donald Trump’s ethnically tinged rhetoric. But it’s hard to take seriously those who criticize his divisiveness if they don’t at least acknowledge that the political left keeps playing the same dangerous game. That’s particularly true in California, where Democratic legislators have placed an ethnically divisive measure on the November ballot. The campaign could get ugly.
The issue is “bilingual education.” Despite the word “bilingual,” this refers to the way the state’s public schools had been teaching Spanish-speaking children almost entirely in their native language rather than English. The result was predictable: Immigrant children were so slow to learn English that it hobbled their economic prospects and made assimilation difficult. In 1998, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz and Santa Ana public-school teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman drafted the “English in Public Schools” initiative (Proposition 227) to mandate English immersion.
Despite being outspent four-to-one by a coalition mostly of unions and bilingual educators, the English side prevailed with more than 61 percent of the vote. The proposition required all public-school teaching in English, but it allowed parents to sign a waiver to allow bilingual classes. Without exaggeration, it was one of the most successful education reforms in American history — and has remained in force since its passage.
“Two years after Californians voted to end bilingual education and force a million Spanish-speaking students to immerse themselves in English as if it were a cold bath, those students are improving in reading and other subjects at often striking rates, according to standardized test scores released this week,” reported a New York Times article in 2000. The Times wrote that the “prophecies” of “catastrophe” by Prop. 227 opponents “have not materialized.”
The Times interviewed Ken Noonan, an Oceanside educator who led opposition to the measure, but was so swayed by the good news that he changed his mind. “I thought it would hurt kids,” he said. “The exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me. The kids began to learn — not pick up, but learn — formal English, oral and written, far more quickly than I ever thought they would.” I interviewed Noonan in 2014 for the San Diego Union-Tribune and he remained as convinced as ever of the merits of Proposition 227.
Unfortunately, as Noonan told me, there still are plenty of “ideologues who can’t let go.” In May 2014, the Democratic-dominated Senate voted 27-8 to place Proposition 58 on this November’s ballot. Its goal is to overturn this ban on “bilingual” education and gut Proposition 227. I was on the Senate floor during the debate and pro-bilingual-education forces used laughably disingenuous arguments. They talked about Europe and the wonders of a multilingual workforce, as if their proposition were about promoting bilingualism in the corporate world.
We know the benefits of speaking multiple languages. But “bilingual education” is about protecting jobs for union members, who have been unsuccessful at convincing immigrant parents to sign those education waivers. And it’s about multicultural ideology.
As Unz wrote in 1997, this education approach was the result of “avant-garde pedagogy and multiculturalist ideology” that is “usually ‘bilingual’ in name only. Too often, young immigrant kids are taught little or no English … based on the ridiculous notion that too much English too early will damage a child’s self-esteem and learning ability.” If you still don’t believe it’s mostly ideological, consider that Oakland wanted federal bilingual-education funds to teach students in Ebonics.
Sen. Ricardo Lara, the Los Angeles Democrat who sponsored the bill to place Proposition 58 on the ballot, told the Sacramento Bee that as a 23-year-old San Diego State University student during the 1998 Proposition 227 campaign he felt a “racist undertone when it came to Spanish speakers.”
But efforts to end bilingual education were driven largely by immigrant parents who didn’t want their kids spending their lives as janitors and gardeners. It was a genuine grassroots movement. In 2003, I was a columnist at the Orange County Register when an Unz-backed recall effort bounced a pro-bilingual-education member from the Santa Ana school board. That city of 330,000 has the highest concentration of Spanish speakers in the country.
“Because nearly all the Latino children in California schools are now immediately taught English, they’re doing much better academically and gaining admission to top colleges,” wrote Unz recently in the San Diego Union-Tribune. There’s a large increase in Latinos attending the prestigious University of California system, he added. (That’s particularly meaningful given that Proposition 209 in 1996 banned the use of racial and ethnic preferences for admittance to the state’s university systems.)
But multicultural ideology threatens that success. In California, our Democratic attorney general (and leading U.S. Senate candidate) writes the ballot and summary for initiatives. Because that’s the only thing most voters read, it’s influential. The title: “English proficiency. Multilingual education. Initiative statute.” The first line in the summary: “Preserves requirement that public schools ensure students obtain English language proficiency.” Another sentence says it “authorizes school districts to establish dual-language immersion programs,” but it’s too late by then. Most voters will no doubt think this measure boosts English proficiency.
In the ballot arguments, opponents of Proposition 58 argue correctly that “it actually repeals the requirement the children be taught English in California public schools. It’s all a trick by the Sacramento politicians to fool the voters….” Supporters describe those as scare tactics, but admit “local school districts will decide … the most appropriate language instruction approaches for their students to achieve English proficiency as rapidly as possible….”
Local districts, especially in immigrant-heavy Democratic strongholds such as Los Angeles, will be able to bring back those failed, old-school bilingual-education programs. As the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office explains, “Under this proposal, schools would no longer be required to teach English learners in English-only programs.” One in five California students is an English learner, according to LAO. So this change could have widespread repercussions.
The headline in Dan Morain’s Sacramento Bee column last month argued the “ghost of Prop. 187 rises as Donald Trump ascends.” Proposition 187 was the 1994 ballot initiative that denied most public benefits to illegal immigrants. It passed with 59 percent of the vote, but ultimately was gutted by the courts. National Democrats will, for years to come, tar Republicans because of Trump’s words, Morain argues, just as California Democrats have tarred California Republicans because of Prop. 187.
He’s no doubt right and Republicans deserve it. But we should all save some bile for the state’s Democrats, who continue to play ugly ethnic political games — and do so even if it keeps a generation of immigrant kids from entering the English-speaking mainstream.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. His political views do not reflect the views of the institute.
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