English-only education is less, not more

(U-WIRE) LOS ANGELES — In passing Proposition 187 almost four years ago, California voters exhibited an irrational xenophobia prodded by Gov. Pete Wilson’s venomous attacks on illegal immigrants.
This year, another ballot measure threatens to further divide Californians along race and class lines. Proposition 227, sponsored by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, would eliminate the state’s bilingual education programs and require that English be taught in all public schools.
Interestingly, Unz was a vocal opponent of Proposition 187 and Wilson’s self-serving demagoguery. By bringing 227 to the table, though, Unz and his ilk threaten to do more harm than 187 ever could. Eliminating bilingual education would throw the educational system back to the post-World War I fears that led to the exploitation of Chinese labor and to Japanese internment camps. Unz should look back to Supreme Court cases such as the 1923 Meyer v. Nebraska decision, which found unconstitutional the practice of banning instruction in foreign languages.
Proponents of the measure, as well as most voters, assert that English is an essential skill for success in an increasingly English-speaking world. No rational person would dispute this; however, this isn’t a valid reason to eliminate bilingual education. If anything, it is fodder to continue support of the programs.
Proposition 227 is predicated on a false pretense: children can easily learn another language if heavily taught at an early age. Under the measure, non-English speakers would be admitted to a one-year intensive English language program, then enrolled in regular classes taught in English with no further instruction in their native tongues.
As someone who has studied the Spanish language for nearly nine years, I know that it’s not possible to become fluent in a language in one year, regardless of how young the student is. A strong foundation in at least one language is essential for academic success, a fact any reputable linguist will verify.
In Europe, bilingual education is the norm. For example, in Belgium, the official languages are French and Flemish, and both are taught alongside another language, often English. Rather than emphasizing one language as superior to another, all are treated equally. Studies have shown that this approach is much more effective than the system being proposed with Proposition 227. In fact, Unz’s plan is largely untested and experimental, and would supplant methods whose effectiveness has been proven.
As an accomplished entrepreneur in a global economy, Unz should see that his provincial English-only agenda is counterintuitive to success in a multicultural marketplace. If California hopes to remain competitive with the rest of the world, we must prepare students for life in a multicultural world, including knowing at least one and possibly two foreign languages.
A poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times seems to provide ample evidence that California voters — and Latinos even more so — heartily support Unz’s initiative. Another Los Angeles Times survey, however — this time of Ventura County residents — found that a majority of voters support bilingual education; the same poll also found that 72 percent of the county’s Latinos also were in favor.
These seemingly conflicting figures can be used to demonstrate that most Californians support bilingual education in theory, undermining a crucial tenet of Unz’s argument: the belief that bilingual education should be dismantled altogether. This clearly is not the will of the state’s voters, and as they begin to see past the fancy campaigning to the true impact of the measure, support will likely erode.
Bilingual education in California and the rest of the United States has historically been underfunded. No single standard has been adopted, leading to a piecemeal system that often leaves bilingual students confused and lagging behind their non-bilingual classmates.
Unfortunately, Unz’s solution is perhaps the worst option for those concerned with the future of the state’s children. Passage of Proposition 227 will be a huge step backward for our society and economy. Eliminating the program will not serve as the panacea he promises; rather, it will put further pressure on an already overburdened public education system. President Clinton’s mantra regarding affirmative action also serves here: mend it, don’t end it.

Christian Cooper’s column originally appeared in Tuesday’s edition of the University of Southern California’s Daily Trojan.