Vote to Eliminate Bilingual Education In California Resonates Nationwide

Golden State's decision may push states to reform their programs.

For the past year, states nationwide have been closely watching California's battle over bilingual education, hoping to catch a glimpse of how Americans view the controversial programs.

On Tuesday, the message delivered by California voters could hardly have been more clear. Their decision to virtually eliminate bilingual education is a signal to states across the US: reform or die.

"People in all these states are getting a wake-up call that if things aren't fixed in a hurry, they risk losing the whole ball of wax," says Tim Schultz, director of US English, a citizen action group dedicated to preserving English usage in all 50 states.

The proposition, which passed by a 61-to-39 percent margin, will undoubtedly face court challenges that could tie up implementation of the law for some time. But experts say the vote is significant because about two-thirds of the state's Latino voters supported the proposition.

"This is the first time that those most affected by bilingual programs have spoken so clearly that they don't want them," says Jorge Amselle, spokesman for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington think tank that examines issues of race and public policy. Furthermore, he says that Latino activists who challenge the new law will be in the "awkward position" of going against the majority of their communities.

"This has undermined the argument that immigrants don't want to assimilate," he adds.

Inside California, the new law will abolish bilingual education - the use of two languages for instruction - for the state's 1.3 million limited-English students, mandating that all public-school children be taught in English. After a one-year English immersion program, these students will be asked to study all subjects in English. Parents who still want bilingual education can still sign a special request, but conditions for approval will be limited.

The right answer?

For opponents of the initiative, called Proposition 227, the end of almost all the state's bilingual-education programs is a simplistic answer to a complex issue.

"We feel this one-size-fits-all mandate unfairly eliminates even those programs that work well," says Emily Palacio, assistant superintendent of the Calexico Unified School district, which has won national awards for its bilingual programs during the past 25 years. Indeed, some teachers there - as well as other districts - have stated they may try to circumvent the new law.

Now faced with throwing out thousands of dollars of textbooks and teaching materials and starting over, Ms. Palacio says: "We have no idea how we are going to proceed, or who is going to pay for new materials. The state didn't think about that."


Outside California, where there are about 1.5 million limited-English elementary and secondary students, the vote is giving added momentum to various reform efforts in states from Washington to Massachusetts.

* In Chicago, reformers are limiting the amount of time a student may stay in a bilingual program from the current maximum of six years down to three.

* In Arizona, officials are trying to deter lengthy bilingual-education programs by only giving four years' worth of funding to schools that offer such programs.

* Proposed changes to bilingual programs that have met wide resistance in Massachusetts are now expected to get a nudge from the California vote.

Other implications of the vote include signals to both major parties, observers say.

"As much as the GOP alienated Hispanics in the past election cycles, if they can show a passion to support this vote, that is something Hispanics would respond very well to," says Mr. Schultz. "If Democrats continue to support bilingual education blindly as they have, and don't want to reform, they are going to have wonder if Hispanics will continue to support them as in the past."

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