A common language
San Francisco Chronicle
February 20, 2005
 Jill Stewart

WHEN TEST SCORES came out recently showing that Latino immigrant kids are getting much better at reading and writing English, California Superintendent of Schools Jack O'Connell urged schools to find ways to move them out of special English and into mainstream classes. Good idea, because many can't get access to advanced placement courses for college so long as they're designated as "English learners" and kept too long in training-wheels-style English immersion classes.  I find it rich that O'Connell is urging schools to act. To a large degree, it's his fault.

 Under Proposition 227, immigrant children were only supposed to stay in special immersion for a year or so, and then go to a mainstream class. But O'Connell has refused to credit English immersion for soaring English literacy rates. His silence emboldens the anti-English ideologues who still strive to keep Latino kids in a separate world.

 Again this month, O'Connell refused to credit English immersion, telling The Chronicle he won't guess why kids are learning English so well.

 Guess? Year after year, he has failed to crunch data that could compare kids still stuck in "bilingual" to those in English. The state Board of Education finally ordered O'Connell to produce a study with that in mind. While we wait, I did my own study. I found that school districts such as Los Angeles Unified, where moderate Democrats stamped out failing "bilingual" education amid fierce lefty resistance, are producing big, lasting gains in English literacy.

 By contrast, districts controlled by left-wing Democrats with an attitude of "they won't be able to talk to grandma" are producing smaller gains. In 2001, of 244,000 L.A. kids who weren't native English speakers, only 17 percent scored as "advanced or early advanced" on statewide English tests. Today, a stunning 49 percent get those high scores.

Back then, Los Angeles was paying 6,000 teachers a yearly bonus ($2,500 to $5,000) to teach in Spanish -- the disastrous "bilingual" program. Now, only 679 teachers get the bonuses and teach "bilingual." See any pattern there, Mr. O'Connell?

 By contrast, San Diego Unified was run by sad, fad-obsessed school honchos Alan Bersin and Tony Alvarado, who kowtowed to its anti-reform teachers union. It shows. In 2001, of 33,800 San Diego kids who weren't native English speakers, 24 percent got "advanced or early advanced" scores on the English tests. Today, 41 percent get those high scores -- well behind L.A.

Virulently anti-Prop. 227 Berkeley Unified is almost frozen in place. In 2001, of the 1,000 Berkeley kids who weren't native English speakers, 42 percent scored "advanced or early advanced" on English tests. Today, 45 percent do. Los Angeles -- far more urban and poverty-riddled -- has blown past leafy Berkeley. O'Connell's silence emboldens the anti-immersion advocates. In Sacramento, legislators will soon hold education "hearings" aimed at dumbing-down Latino kids with a separate curriculum. The key guest speaker is in outrageous Pied Piper from the "bilingual" fiasco days, dead-wrong Canadian theorist Jim Cummins. We should pray that pragmatic Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stop the hard left. But unfortunately, pragmatic Democrats are scared. One of their own -- the brilliant Reed Hastings -- just lost his job on the state Board of Education for defying the lefties on immersion.

 While the pragmatic Democrats base their views on facts, the left nurses its longtime religious fervor against immersion. Just to remind you how bad their fervor is, let's look back to 1998:
 -- Then-San Francisco School Board President Carlota del Portillo declared that English immersion "has no educational basis and would set our students back 30 years."

 -- Jerry Perenchio, chief of Spanish-language Univision, spent $1.5 million fighting Prop. 227. A Republican, he adopted the views of lefty aides at Univision. One Perenchio aide derided English immersion -- the most common method used in the United States -- as "an untested teaching method."

 -- Then-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, now running for mayor of Los Angeles, denounced Prop. 227 as another Proposition 187.

 -- Then-state Sen. Richard Polanco, a Democrat from Los Angeles, insisted, "[Prop. 227] will do more damage to the [children] in the long run."

 The left should grow up. Each year, California must educate a massive, new influx of non-English speaking kids from Third World Mexico and other Central American countries, in numbers seen nowhere else in the nation. Ronni Ephraim, the gifted chief instructional officer at L.A. Unified, says Latino parents "recognize that at school their child should acquire a strong base of English, and at home they can support them in maintaining their home language.Parents want their children to be competitive."

 So why is the Legislature still pursuing a separate curriculum and lower standards for Latinos, and inviting in one of the worst Pied Pipers of the bilingual fiasco?

 "I don't understand Sacramento," Ephraim told me. "Why would anyone want to hold a kid back?"  Well, that's a true conundrum. But abetted by O'Connell's silence, that's precisely what's afoot.

 Jill Stewart, a print, radio and television commentator on California politics, can be reached at  www.jillstewart.net.