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June 6, 2014
Viewpoints: Don't forget reasons for English immersion


(June 6 - By Ben Boychuck, Special to The Bee)

Memories are short. People forget. Public policy - who cares?

As tough as it can be to give people a solid grounding in basic American principles, imagine the difficulty explaining the reasons for any number of strange things our government does in the name of the "public good." Why, for example, does it make sense to stop teaching children to speak English one way and start teaching them another way?

It isn't "just because." There are reasons. Good ones.

People forget. Or they simply do not know. Ignorance in a democracy is as common as the cold. More than 289,000 Californians on Tuesday voted for state Sen. Leland Yee to be their next secretary of state. Never mind that Yee dropped out of the race in March following a federal indictment on felony corruption and gun-trafficking charges. He still ended up placing third in the top-two contest.

San Jose State political scientist Larry Gerston explained how this could have happened: "There will be some people who will vote for Yee because they do not know what is going on."

They do not know what is going on. From a Ph.D.'s lips to God's ears!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about our Legislature's expertise at writing and passing frivolous legislation. I mentioned Sen. Ricardo Lara's Senate Bill 1174 as an example of a bill that is both frivolous and dangerous. It passed the state Senate last week by a vote of 27-8.

SB 1174 aims to undo one of the most significant education reforms of the past two decades. Lara's bill would place an initiative on the 2016 ballot that would repeal Proposition 227, the 1998 measure that ended California's destructive and divisive approach to bilingual education. Dubbed "English for the Children," the proposition was remarkably straightforward. It declared: "All children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English." Voters approved by an overwhelming 61 percent to 39 percent.

People forget that prior to Proposition 227, many English language learners were not taught in English, at least not very well. "Bilingual education in California means monolingual instruction, mainly in Spanish," argued Ron Unz, the initiative's author and main sponsor. Rather than graduating kids fluent in English, the state did a splendid job of churning out illiterates in two languages - assuming they actually stayed in school.

Lara, a Bell Gardens Democrat, argues that the system of English immersion that Proposition 227 established is a kind of "linguistic tyranny." Tyranny. He doesn't know the meaning of the word. Either Lara forgets, or he would have us ignore, what California's bilingual classrooms looked like in the 1980s and '90s.

"Linguistic tyranny" is a Spanish-speaking ghetto. "Linguistic tyranny" is a system that paid $5,000 bonuses to "English" teachers who could barely speak the language themselves.

Policymakers today worry about a high school dropout rate among Hispanic students of 20 percent or so. "Linguistic tyranny" is a Hispanic dropout rate approaching 30 percent - higher for kids whose first language wasn't English. "Linguistic tyranny" is a mindless bureaucracy shuffling Chinese and Vietnamese kids into Spanish-speaking classrooms because "English learner" meant "Spanish speaker." (Actually, that's essentially true. About 85 percent of English language learners in the Golden State speak Spanish primarily at home.)

Lara forgets the 1996 "strike" at Ninth Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, when 63 families - mostly illegal immigrants, by the way - kept their kids at home to protest recalcitrant school administrators who refused to move them from Spanish-only instruction into mainstream classes.

Those mothers and fathers, almost none of whom spoke English themselves, understood what real "linguistic tyranny" is. Depriving their children of an education in the dominant language of the United States guaranteed they would remain second-class citizens at best.

People forget. But I'd wager those families haven't forgotten.

Fact is, immersion works. And the younger you are when you begin learning a second language, the greater your odds of gaining full fluency. California's old, phony "bilingual" model of teaching kids primarily in their native language has been discredited.

Yet some Republicans seem to have forgotten, as well. (Although it's worth remembering that the political elite of both political parties lined up against Proposition 227.) Senate GOP Leader Bob Huff said he voted for Lara's bill because he favors "local control." If that means jeopardizing a crucial element of what the children of the foreign-born need to assimilate as citizens in a democratic republic, then to hell with local control.

If it makes the 2016 ballot, some will vote for Lara's initiative because "they do not know what is going on," either. They will not know the reasons why Proposition 227 was so necessary in 1998. They will fall prey to facile arguments and foolish appeals. We need to help them remember.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Contact him at