Bush Administration, GOP Slammed Over Bilingual Education
November 22, 2002
Robert B. Bluey, CNSNews.com

With four statewide ballot referendums under his belt, English for the Children Chairman Ron Unz plans to turn his attention to Congress in his effort to end bilingual education programs.

Even though this year's election produced mixed results - Massachusetts voted to halt bilingual education, while Colorado voted to keep it - Unz said one-year 'English-immersion programs' are the way to go.

Complicating those efforts, he said, are several factors, not the least of which is a lack of support from Republicans.

Unz, a conservative who unsuccessfully challenged Pete Wilson in the 1994 California Republican gubernatorial primary, accused the Bush administration of abandoning conservative principles in fear of alienating Hispanic voters.

"As far as I can tell, the Bush administration doesn't seem to have a very sophisticated understanding of Latinos," he claimed. "They talk a little Spanish and say they like Latinos. They're also quite respectful of Latino activist organizations, most of which favor bilingual education."

After losing to Wilson, Unz turned his attention to Proposition 227, a statewide ballot initiative which California voters approved by a wide margin.

Two years later, Unz poured his wealth into Arizona to get the question on the ballot. He was successful there as well, which prompted interest in Colorado and Massachusetts this year.

With those efforts behind him, Unz said there is enough evidence and support from voters to end bilingual education in public schools. He said this year's landslide ballot-measure victory in Massachusetts, which carried 68 percent of the vote, should send a message.

"I think that would get the attention of some national politicians," Unz said. "You would think that the right-wing Republicans controlling Congress would say, 'Maybe we can be almost as conservative as the left-wing, liberal, Democratic voters of Massachusetts.' You would hope so."

The debate between bilingual education and English-immersion is not new. Massachusetts, which has now backed away from bilingual education, was actually the first state to adopt a bilingual education law in 1971.

Typically, bilingual education refers to a teaching practice that includes instruction in English and a student's native language.

For instance, when new Hispanic students start school, they might spend 90 percent of the day being taught in Spanish, with the other 10 percent dedicated to learning English. As children grow older, the amount of instruction in English would gradually increase.

English-immersion programs do exactly what the name implies; immerse students in a one-year course learning the English language, a strategy Unz would like to make mandatory.

Unz began his campaign after what he viewed as the failure of California's bilingual education experiment that began in 1976. In each of the four states that have considered the measure, Hispanic voters have been a key constituency.

Unz views English-immersion as a benefit for Hispanic children, but opponents, including the National Association for Bilingual Education, claim a year dedicated solely to English comes at the expense of other subjects.

The organization's spokesman, Jaime Zapata, dismissed Unz's suggestion that Congress mandate an English-immersion position. He said school districts need to make those decisions, not the federal government or states through voter referendums.

"I don't see it happening in Congress," Zapata said. "Legislators clearly understand that the decisions about the education of children are best made at the local level."

Coincidentally, that is the same position of the U.S. Department of Education, run by Secretary Rod Paige.

Paige championed bilingual education programs as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District before joining the Bush administration.

"We expect our children to be proficient in English in three years, using a proven method that works, in which states, local districts and parents determine what's best for their child," said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the Department of Education. "In addition, we have provided a significant increase in funding to assist states with these efforts."

In fact, under the No Child Left Behind Act, funding for the department's Office of English Language Acquisition has nearly doubled to $665 million. At the first-ever summit on the topic, held last week in Washington, D.C., Paige said if schools do not show results, they will lose federal funding.

Unz has made it clear he is no fan of Bush's education plan or Paige's leadership of the department; earlier this year, Unz was accused of making racist comments in a letter to supporters that chastised Paige as the "dimmest member" of Bush's cabinet.

Unz went further, accusing the administration of courting "all these professors of bilingual education. They naturally are going to favor bilingual education. The Bush people are scared at being yelled at by bilingual activists."

Even if the federal government does not take up the matter as Unz has suggested, another supporter of his initiatives said states might reform on their own.

"States are under the gun to show results," ProEnglish Executive Director K.C. McAlpin said. "They can't continue to spend the money they are spending for bilingual education. When the two groups are compared to each other, the bilingual kids are significantly under performing."

The best indication of bilingual education's future might be in the test scores of students who have learned English through an immersion program. There are early indications that it is working in California, Unz said, although Zapata was quick to highlight its failures.

Niger Innis, spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, said part of his organization's mission is to help immigrants adjust to a new society, which includes learning English.

Teenagers and adults take advantage of the group's free English-immersion program, which Innis credits with helping them assimilate into American society.

"Whatever people want to speak when they are in their own home environment is fine," he said. "But when they go into the marketplace and mainstream culture, including school and business, they have to speak English. Therefore, the goal has to be to get them to speak English, and we've found immediate immersion is the most effective way to do it."

Even though the program is similar to the one promoted by Unz, Innis did not completely dismiss bilingual education, if that works for some people.

Based on exit-poll data in Massachusetts, proponents of bilingual education claim Hispanics want their children to have bilingual education. The poll found that 92 percent of Latinos voted against the immersion measure.

"The Hispanic community has always strongly supported bilingual education," Zapata said. "They understand that speaking the home language of the family maintains a bridge to previous generations, but also they know that bilingual programs teach children English and ensure that they don't fall behind in their academics."

But Unz and his supporters have taken aim at Zapata's first point about family heritage and have dismissed his second point as well. For instance, Innis said he wholeheartedly supports bilingualism, just not when it is taught in schools.

Unz is convinced immersion programs are simply more effective - something voters in three states have agreed with - and he thinks most of the country will as well.

Convincing the general public might be easier than congressional Republicans, but Unz said he was confident that it could be done.

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey. rbluey@cnsnews.com


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