Leon Worden

Ballot box blues for bilingual education

Leon Worden · July 30, 1997

It had to come to this. Parents and teachers have bashed their heads against the wall for years, trying to get the state to change the way it mandates bilingual education for children who enter the public school system with little or no knowledge of English. They've run into roadblocks all the way from their local schools to the state capitol.

Now the critics of California's bilingual education program are taking their message straight to the voters, in the form of an initiative statute that will end bilingual education as we know it. It's already destined to become the next great California ballot measure.

"The initiative says English must be taught in English, and we think that's a brilliant idea," says Gloria Matta Tuchman, co-author of the English Language Education for Immigrant Children initiative. A Mexican-American elementary school teacher and former candidate for state schools superintendent, Tuchman has 33 years of experience with limited-English children and has watched a well-intended federal program turn into what she now calls the "billion dollar scam of the century."

"Bilingual education was designed to teach children English, but it doesn't. It's really monolingual education. (Immigrant children) already know their home language and they aren't being taught English. This has been going on for three decades and no one has been willing to put this sacred cow to rest because of the money and politics involved.

"(Bilingual education) has been detrimental to English learners, especially Latino children," Tuchman said Monday, adding that to deny immigrant children access to English is to deny them their civil rights.

In most California schools today, including Santa Clarita's, non-English speaking children are taught core subjects like math and science in their native language, with only a small portion of the day devoted to English language instruction. The idea is that the children can keep up on their other academic subjects while they are learning English and then, after a few years, they will know enough English to transfer into the regular English-only classroom.

It's an interesting theory, but unfortunately the results aren't too impressive. State Department of Education figures show that of the 1.3 million children currently enrolled in bilingual education programs -- 23 percent of the state's total school population -- only about 5 percent transfer into regular English classrooms each year. And many of them never get that far.

"Dropout rates are highest among Hispanics, and I attribute a lot of that to bilingual education," says Tuchman, who explains that children often grow discouraged with a school system that refuses to provide the English language skills they will need in the working world. "These children need special help, it is their right, and they are not getting it."

The new initiative, nicknamed "English for the Children," will require school districts to give non-English speakers the special help they need to learn English as quickly as possible. It will prohibit segregation along language lines, as is the practice today, and it will stipulate that schools must use "sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year." Sheltered English is a specialized teaching tool designed for English learners.

The initiative empowers parents by giving them the option to keep their children in the special program longer, and it even lets them enroll their children in bilingual education classes if they so choose. It also allocates $50 million a year, administered by the state, for parents and community groups that teach English to school children.

Initiative backers can cite reams of studies showing the effectiveness of sheltered English and other immersion techniques, but for Tuchman it boils down to something more basic.

"Children are like sponges," she says. "They don't need bilingual education, they need good teachers who know how to teach sheltered English immersion. Get them while they're young and they can learn anything -- including English."

To sign the petition to get the initiative on the June, 1998 ballot write to: English for the Children, 212 E. 6th St., Los Angeles, CA 90014 or call (213) 627-0005.

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Hope you're ready for the Home Town Picnic at Mentryville this Saturday! The Friends promise an intimate, old-fashioned evening of barbecue (catered by Rattler's), children's games, hay rides, ice cream making, horseshoe pitching, storytelling, barbershop singing and dancing to the country tunes of an authentic jug band.

Ticket prices are $25 for adults and a low-low $5 for children. Admission is by reservation only; call (805) 254-5272.

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

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