The Mercury News
Prop. 58 won’t help immigrant children learn English
Just over 20 years ago, a small group of Latino parents in Los Angeles launched a movement that forever changed American public education.
For years they had been concerned that their local elementary school refused to teach their children English, instead forcing them into Spanish-almost-only “Bilingual Education” classes.
As poor immigrant garment workers, they worked long hours for low pay and realized that their children desperately needed English to get a good job or apply to college. But the teachers and administrators ignored their requests for English classes.
Finally, with the assistance of Alice Callaghan, a left-wing nun and longtime immigrant-rights activist, they began a public boycott of their school, carrying picket signs protesting that their children were being denied the right to learn English.
The story generated headlines in the Los Angeles Times, and after the personal intervention of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, the school eventually backed down and made a special exception for those Latino families, giving them the English classes they desired.
I read those articles in the Times and was shocked. I’d always regarded bilingual education programs as unsuccessful, but had never imagined that California schools were refusing to teach English to immigrant children. I met with Callaghan and the parents to discuss how to change that statewide policy.
The next year a small handful of us launched Prop. 227, our “English for the Children” initiative, requiring California public schools to teach English to young immigrant children from their first day of class. Renowned educator Jaime Escalante joined our campaign as Honorary Chairman.
We were opposed by nearly the entire political and educational establishment of the state and outspent on advertising by 25-to-1, but we still won a landslide victory with more than 61 percent of the vote.
Within just a few months, hundreds of thousands of Latino schoolchildren were shifted from Spanish-language instruction into intensive sheltered English immersion. The improvement in their academic performance was so remarkable it generated headlines up and down the state, reaching the front page of The New York Times after a couple of years.
The founding president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators admitted he’d been wrong for 30y years and became a born-again convert to English immersion. Reed Hastings, the Democrat who served as president of the California State Board of Education, also changed his mind and donated money to fund a similar initiative in his home state of Massachusetts, which was also successful. Our entire country moved towards teaching English to immigrant children from their first day of school.
Prop. 227 never completely outlawed bilingual education. Immigrant parents who wanted to place their children in non-English programs could sign an annual written waiver to do so. But since the vast majority preferred English, most of those programs disappeared.
“English for the Children” was so overwhelmingly popular and successful that the issue has been dead and forgotten for the last dozen years.
Now the diehard supporters of bilingual education are trying to return California to the failed system of twenty years ago. Sen. Ricardo Lara has sponsored Proposition 58, which would repeal much of our initiative.
Sen. Lara claims that the biggest problem with the current system is that it’s too difficult to persuade Latino parents to sign the 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 for their children.
Let’s keep an educational system that works and defeat Prop. 58.