Our View: Efforts to repeal bilingual learning ban revive bad memories

June 23, 2014 

There is no one way to learn and therefore no one way to teach, which is a truism all good teachers recognize. But there is only one language that will ensure success across America and most of the world. That’s English, which is why so many nations require that it be taught in their schools.

Teaching English to non-English-speaking children has long been a hot-button issue in California. In the late 1990s, Proposition 227 mandated that English-learners be immersed in English-only classes. In some ways, such an approach has worked. In other ways, it has failed. That’s why we don’t disagree with those who want to fix how the law is applied.

Unfortunately, we see no evidence that state Sen. Ricardo Lara’s efforts to repeal Prop. 227 will do anything except dredge up the old controversy and all its ugly implications. Lara, D-Bell Gardens, has downplayed the historical controversy about how to teach kids who aren’t fluent in English.

“This is not to reopen old battles about bilingual education,” Lara said during the Senate Education Committee hearing for Senate Bill 1174, the Multilingual Education for a 21st Century Economy Act. “There is new pedagogy, new strategies.”

Then he reopened that old battle, saying: “It’s time for us to revisit Prop. 227, which, in a sense, created this linguistic tyranny by forcing our students who are already naturally endowed with multiple languages to only speak one.”

Lara’s words were like a red cape to bilingual education foes, who reacted predictably by digging up the sound bites of the 1990s about schools failing students in two languages.

It’s unfortunate that this important discussion about multilingualism devolved into a rehashing of the ban on teaching in two languages that 61 percent of California voters supported in 1998. Lara is correct in saying California should champion policies that encourage fluency in more than one language. But reliving the 20th century’s educational failures without a clearly defined plan to move forward is a dangerous way to achieve that goal.

Proposition 227, for all its flaws, never outlawed bilingualism – as Lara suggests. Most, if not all, high schools offer instruction in languages other than English.

If Lara has a plan, we’d like to hear it. Instead, his bill replaces English immersion with some very squishy language: “School districts and county offices of education may determine the best language instruction methods and language acquisition programs to implement by consulting experts in the field, parents, and engaging local communities.”

That provides an awful lot of room for misinterpretation – and failure. The one thing we cannot do is fail the children who are so eager to learn.

Without a plan, Lara shouldn’t expect his legislation to simply slide through without serious discourse. The senator has an obligation to engage the public. Before the Assembly follows the Senate, which would put the repeal to voters in 2016, legislators should insist on concrete answers. They can start Wednesday when the Assembly Education Committee considers SB 1174.

The first question should be how to ensure that school districts remain dedicated to achieving English proficiency for every student under provisions that seem to leave it up to committee.

There are no compelling data that English immersion fails, but anecdotal information is plentiful about students being tested in English before they can speak it – even in math. Even smart students fail such tests, so we understand the desire to help them do better. We would understand making changes in how immersion works – study in English, test in two languages, for instance – but not scrapping it altogether. And we don’t know how ending English immersion accomplishes Lara’s goals.

We opposed Proposition 227 as a gamble based on an unproven theory. We’re not happy with all its results, but we do believe in its goal. Before sending it to voters again – along with all the ugly and divisive political rhetoric of 1998 – we need to know how this will work to make every student proficient in English and successful in a changing 21st-century economy.

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