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Education Reporter

How to Squelch Success
California State School Board would nullify Proposition 227
Ron Unz
Ron Unz
SACRAMENTO, CA - The California State School Board voted in February to approve new regulations that would essentially overturn Proposition 227, the dramatically successful measure that ended bilingual education in 1998 and caused immigrant children's test scores to skyrocket. Limited English 2nd graders not in bilingual programs in 2001 were 170% more likely to be reading at or above grade level than their bilingual-ed counterparts. The percentage of Latino students scoring above the 50th percentile in reading increased from 21% in 1998 to 35% in 2001. Math scores jumped from 27% of Latinos testing above the 50th percentile in 1998 to 46% in 2001.

Under current California law, the parents of limited-English students must sign waivers to keep their children in bilingual programs. Prior to the passage of Prop 227, immigrant children often languished in bilingual instruction for five years or more, and never fully learned English. These students typically did poorly on tests and many eventually dropped out of school.

One of the state board's proposed new regulations would strip parents of the right to decide whether their children should remain in bilingual programs and would instead place that responsibility in the hands of teachers. Since bilingual educators typically receive a premium for their services, it is in their financial interest (and that of their unions and school administrators) to keep as many limited-English students as possible in bilingual programs.

The proposed new regulations would also delete the current law's provision that limited-English students spend the first month of each school year in English-immersion classes before their waivers can take effect.

California entrepreneur Ron Unz, who authored Proposition 227 and engineered the passage of a similar law in Arizona in 2000 (Proposition 203), told National Review Online (NRO) that "The combination of these two changes would essentially reestablish California's system of bilingual education for 1.5 million students." Unz called the state board's action "a stunning political development" and accused board members of trying to nullify the law approved by the voters. Unz is currently spearheading campaigns to place measures on the ballot in November that would end bilingual education in Colorado and in Massachusetts.

After the proposed California School Board regulations became public, a spate of news articles criticized the action. U.S. News (2-8-02) hailed Proposition 227 as "a resounding success" and stated: "Opportunities are being opened up for hundreds of thousands of young Americans. The effects on millions of lives - and on the quality of life in the nation as a whole - are incalculable."

U.S. News suggested that California Governor Gray Davis tell the State Board of Education "not to overturn a policy that was passed by the voters," while NRO observed that California Republicans "have just been handed a fantastic new issue to use against the Democrat incumbent."

NRO accused the "bilingual-ed establishment" of trying to get "limited-English children back in its clutches, where it would condemn them to a mis-education lasting for years - and with consequences lasting for lifetimes."

In a related development, Boston University political science professor Christine H. Rossell recently announced the results of a new study on Proposition 227 which shows that school districts have been "inconsistent" in carrying out its provisions. "Schools have implemented a lot of Proposition 227 but they've subverted a lot of it," Rossell told Education Week (3-6-02).

Rossell explained that districts have circumvented the law by choosing children for bilingual programs and then persuading parents to sign waivers after the fact, by offering Spanish literacy lessons in English immersion classes, and by allowing parents to mail in waivers instead of delivering them in person. She found that some limited-English children were placed in English immersion classes without receiving any special help at all.

Rossell's research convinced her that English immersion is more effective than bilingual education, which she admits is "an unpopular stance among academics." She has accepted a position with Ron Unz's organization, English for the Children, in an effort to help the pro-English immersion initiative in Massachusetts.

Rossell visited several California school districts with large immigrant populations as well as analyzing state Department of Education data. English immersion advocates wonder how much higher test scores would be if, assuming her conclusions are correct, the law were more scrupulously followed?

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