The Bilingual Education Debate

This letter petitions the California State Board of Education to grant waivers to school districts for exemption of the requirements of Proposition 227.

August 31, 1998

Dear Members of the State Board of Education:

I am writing you in my capacity as an expert in English language and bilingual education, but also as a concerned citizen with a deep commitment to educational equity and excellence for all California's children. I recommend that you grant the waiver requests of the 38 school districts who have made applications to be exempt from the provisions of Proposition 227. I believe that these waivers are in the best interest of the school districts and the families they serve, as well as in the best interest of the entire community of California. These are my reasons why:

Proposition 227 is an unjust and unwise law that will do lasting and irreparable harm to millions of California's public school students. It is an unjust law because it sets up a system that denies language minority parents and their children equal access to a meaningful and effective education in our public schools. Proposition 227 mandates obstacles to implementation of pedagogically sound and effective programs for students who are classified as limited English proficient. These are obstacles that do not exist for the parents of children who speak English.

The parents of English-speaking children are not compelled to visit the schools and to solicit waivers to get programs that are effective for their children. Anglo parents of English speakers do not have to wait for 30 days into the school year to begin an instructional program they believe to be the best for their children. They do not have to seek special permissions from school officials to get programs that they, together with their children's teachers, have decided are the best for advancing their academic learning and social development.

Nor do the parents of native English-speaking children have to petition this panel to maintain programs with which they are satisfied that have yielded satisfactory scholastic results based on valid assessment criteria. This is true of parents of English speakers unless they are seeking to maintain or establish dual immersion language programs in conjunction with parents of language minority students. In that case, as in the case of some waiver petitioners, even these parents face unreasonable bureaucratic barriers to effective programs that incidentally benefit non-English speakers under the provisions of Proposition 227

Proposition 227 is deliberately and unfairly discriminatory toward language minority parents. It is based on an English-only ideology that is completely incompatible with sound educational practices and programs for language minority students. The school districts that are petitioning for waivers know this, and wish to continue the sound programs that have been developed with great investments of time, money and effort. An inordinate financial burden has been thrust upon these school districts as well, since they are required to set aside expensive and effective instructional materials in which they have invested, many of which are not being accepted by publishers as returns for refunds.

It is indeed amazing to those of us who believe that the desire of every just society is to educate all of its children, to witness the spectacle now before us. It is strange and very disturbing to witness school districts having to beg the State Board of Education to keep programs that have proven effective in their communities for educating language minority students. Is it not the role of the State Board of Education to ensure that California's school children are provided an effective education rather than telling school districts that they cannot provide such programs? Whatever the supposed "will of the people" as expressed by a majority of votes, in matters of how best to educate students, local decision making should take precedence. Voters were mislead in the election by proponents of the English-only movement, an ideology that is based on false assumptions and nativist sentiments that are an anachronism in our linguistically and culturally diverse community of California.

Parents and local educators are the ones who are truly accountable for the results of educational programs. It is wrong for the State Board to superimpose a popular vote based on "folk wisdom" about language learning on the petitioning school districts who wish to preserve their established successful programs. The voters at large do not have knowledge of the local demographics and conditions that exist in every school district. If the State Board denies waivers to these school districts, it becomes the instrument and extension of an extremist ideology that can never be translated into sound educational programs for 25% of California's students.

What is at issue here is whether or not it is legitimate for the State Board to establish a mechanism that undermines legal safeguards for the most vulnerable populations served by the public schools. Arguably, the majority of voters who supported Proposition 227 had no means of assessing the issue of bilingual education objectively and reasonably. Furthermore, those who are most directly impacted by this law could not participate equally in the electoral process. However, members of the language minority community who can vote expressed their opposition to the measure. Consider the fact that 63% of Latino voters opposed Proposition 227. In addition, the voter turn-out in the primary election means that only 22% of the registered voters in the state approved Proposition 227. This hardly represents a resounding endorsement of a social policy of monolingualism.

I wish to make it very clear that I believe granting waivers to school districts is just an interim measure to assure the rights of children. These school districts are demonstrating their commitment to effective programs for the children in their communities. Waivers will permit them to continue their efforts in providing equal educational opportunities for children until the state and federal courts come to their senses and overturn the unjust law put in place by Proposition 227. I believe that the nullification of Proposition 227 is just a matter of time. I believe this because of my faith that we are after all a just society, in spite of mistakes we make along the way.

Jill Kerper Mora, Ed.D.

This letter is a petition to the California State Board of Education to decline to set percentages to define "overwhelmingly in English" for implementation of Proposition 227.

September 9, 1998

Dear Members of the State Board of Education

I am writing to urge you decline to set percentages of language use under the provisions of Proposition 227, which is on the agenda of your September 15 meeting. Any attempt to define the term "overwhelmingly in English" is counterproductive and will have no educational legitimacy. Such percentages, in the quest for the magic equation to satisfy both educators opposed to 227 and its more adamant proponents, are merely a futile attempt to appease the clamor for English-only, and will only exacerbate the conflicts over implementation of Proposition. These are my reasons for recommending that you agree to leave the determination of proper distribution of languages of instruction up to the school districts.

Unfortunately, Proposition 227 has distorted the proper role of the State Board of Education in decision making regarding effective instruction. The premises behind English-only are not grounded in concerns for children and how they learn best. Nor is the "overwhelmingly" descriptor designed to support the decisions of qualified teachers in promoting classroom environment where children's receive every possible opportunity to participate meaningfully in instruction. Percentages are exclusively political, and the price for percentage-setting to quell controversy around issues of educating language minority students will have political fallout. Sound pedagogy, on the other hand, demands flexibility and freedom for educators to make judgments based on local needs and values in the best interests of the children under their care.

To begin with, there is no educational research that supports the use of mandated percentages of English and the native language of students for instruction. As an expert in English language development and Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English, I am very familiar with the research on effective instruction of language minority students. There is strong research evidence demonstrating that increased amounts of native-language instruction increases achievement in both learning English and in the academic content. Consequently, the folklore that more, or exclusive, use of English by teachers in and of itself will increase English learning is not born out by any research studies or other evidence. There are many variables at work in determining how quickly and effectively a language is learned. Percentages of language used does not appear to stand alone as an important factor.

To the contrary, there are many credible studies that demonstrate that increased use of students' native languages in instruction produces positive results in achievement. The National Research Council (Snow, et. al., 1998) in their extensive study on the prevention of reading difficulties recommended that students be taught to read initially in their native languages to reduce the risks of reading failure. If instruction in literacy in the native language is precluded by requiring a high percentage of English instruction, the result will inevitably be much higher rates of failure in English reading and writing. Consequently, if you as a policy board cede to the demands of Ron Unz and the "English for the Children" campaign and declare that the "legal" percentage of native-language instruction is 95%, the rates of achievement for language minority students will sharply decline.

If the Board adopts a policy of setting percentages of English versus native-language instruction, you are playing a zero-sum game politically. If you mandate a high percentage of English in programs implemented by 1,000 distinct school districts in California, the proponents of 227 will expect the state to enforce the policy. Ron Unz was quoted in the Los Angeles Times on September 2 (Sahagun) saying the following,

"There is a real possibility that some administrators and teachers will lose their homes and be forced into bankruptcy over this…And I think the public might be sympathetic toward a parent who sues."

An arbitrary percentage of English will increase the likelihood that Unz and his followers will find parents whose lawsuits they will encourage and support. He may believe that "the public" will be supportive of such vexation litigation, but educators most certainly will be angered by such actions. As a regulatory body, your role in creating or exacerbating such situations of conflict will be scrutinized carefully by the opponents of 227 and the educational community, which is harmed both in the short term and in the long range by this policy.

For these reasons, I strongly urge you not to define or promulgate any regulations mandating a narrow interpretation of "overwhelmingly in English" in classroom instruction and instead, to allow school districts to decide how best to distribute the languages of instruction in programs for language minority students.

Jill Kerper Mora, Ed.D.