Enrollment boom will test schools
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Faced with pressing questions about how best to educate students, citizens in some bellwether states are making decisions via ballot initiative.Skip to next paragraph
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In California, Proposition 13, which launched the taxpayer revolt in 1978, slashed tax revenue to local governments by more than $6 billion. California's public school system, which had been one of the top-rated in the nation, sank to the bottom in student achievement, and some analysts attributed it to the dramatic changes in the way schools were funded.
Since then, state officials mandated a return to phonics-based language instruction and spent $4 billion to reduce class sizes in the early grades. In 1998, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz took on the state's bilingual-education program, after failing to sway legislators to abolish it. He put up the money to fund a ballot-initiative campaign to replace bilingual ed with English-immersion programs. The measure passed with 61 percent of the vote.
Last week, statewide tests signaled that California's 1.4 million limited-English students had made big gains in the two years the law has been in effect. Gains were especially strong in school districts that most fully embraced English immersion for Hispanic students.
"Our students learned English far more rapidly than I thought they could, and I've been a bilingual teacher and advocate for 25 years," says Ken Noonan, superintendent of schools for Oceanside Unified School District, just north of San Diego. Gains in Oceanside were the highest in the state, with reading scores in the elementary grades up 93 percent and math scores up 100 percent.
At the outset, Mr. Noonan had opposed Proposition 227, but says he felt obligated to uphold it once it became law. "We brought teachers together who had been teaching bilingually for years, and we explained to them what happened and why we had to change. There was a lot of distress in the room.... Many of them had master's degrees in bilingual education," he says. "In the end, it's thanks to those teachers that it worked. They're the heroes. They took a program of which they were skeptical and made it work because it is the law."
"English immersion doubled test scores in two years without spending a dollar," adds Mr. Unz.
An initiative similar to California's is on the ballot in Arizona this November, and grass-roots movements are under way in Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York, he adds.
Next, the voucher issue
This year, Californians will have an opportunity to tackle yet another controversial education issue. A new ballot initiative would give families the option of claiming $4,000 in tax credits to send their children to private schools. Teachers, who are fighting the proposition, say it would drain funds from public schools.
"L.A. is the front line of the fight to save public education," says Steve Weingarten, a spokesman for United Teachers Los Angeles, the nation's second- largest teachers' local.
Nationwide, the debate over using public funds to send children to private schools continues to simmer. When offered a specific choice, 75 percent of Americans say they'd rather spend taxpayer money to improve public schools than to provide school vouchers, according to a poll released yesterday by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup Poll. Public support for vouchers peaked at 44 percent in 1996 and '97, and has now dropped to 39 percent, the pollsters say.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society