English-only law hits California schools Ban on bilingual education ignites protest

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In June, Californians passed Proposition 227, initiated by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz and demagogically named “English for the Children.” Following after anti-immigrant Prop. 187 and anti-affirmative action Prop. 209, this measure effectively ends bilingual education statewide. As of August 3, it is illegal for teachers to help children in any language but English.

A waiver provision allows parents to apply for bilingual education, but parents of at least 20 students in a given school must request this, and these students must all be labeled – and hence stigmatized – as having “special needs.” Like Native American children in boarding schools before them, immigrants have been forbidden to speak their own language, separating them from their cultural identity, history, and means of interacting with family and community. This is cultural genocide.

And they are being denied the educational methods best suited to gain proficiency in English, a necessary tool for surviving and advancing in U.S. society.

Moreover, the institutionalization of xenophobia and forced conformity will hurt all of California’s schoolchildren.

In contrast, I was raised in Hawaii with friends of every race and ethnicity. I miss the colors, sounds, tastes and smells of my multicultural, multilingual upbringing. I found the mainland U.S. so dull in comparison!

I once took this astounding diversity for granted. But the more it is threatened, the more determined I am to fight back. And I am far from alone. The battle for bilingual education in California is not over, as students, teachers, and civil rights advocates continue to organize to save it.

Scapegoating and lies. The racist goal of the “English only” campaigners is to divide workers and increase the availability of politically isolated, poorly educated laborers – targeted in this case by national background – who are compelled to work at substandard wages.

But this is not how they sold Proposition 227 publicly. How did they win an alarming 61 percent of the vote – and in a state where people of color will soon be the majority, at that?

On one hand, initiative supporter Governor Pete Wilson and the right wing encouraged native-born citizens to blame immigrants for job insecurity, hard times, and tight public budgets.

On the other hand, their multi-million-dollar offensive sought with significant success to persuade some Asians and Latinos/as that English-only education would be better for their children.

But the evidence reveals that this claim is a fraud. Studies show that bilingual teaching leads more quickly to fluency in English than does immersion in English only – and one study in San Francisco demonstrated that graduates of bilingual education programs performed better even than peers who grew up speaking English.

The U.S. is multicultural – especially California! – and that fact isn’t going to change no matter how much the reactionaries dislike it. The real question is, will this multicultural society operate democratically? To do so, it must provide a quality education for all its residents, and that means using Spanish, Asian tongues, Ebonics, and Native languages as aids for teaching English.

Says Moises Montoya, a Chicano gay activist and socialist feminist who is running for San Francisco City College Governing Board, “In most of the rest of the world, speaking more than one language is encouraged, even expected. Why should the U.S. be different?”

Lack of labor leadership felt. A heavy blow to the campaign against Proposition 227 was the failure of most union leaders to throw the considerable muscle of organized labor behind it.

Union officials, who typically approach crucial race and sex problems with blinders on, did not see bilingual education as a vital issue for labor. But it is, because the inferior education of the student is a key component in maintaining the inferior status of the adult worker. And the super-exploitation of immigrants, people of color, and women on the job drives down everybody’s wages and living standards – while politically pitting each against all.

Defiant response. Champions of bilingual education are not taking Proposition 227 lying down.
The Mexican American Defense and Education Fund, Asian Law Caucus, American Civil Liberties Union, and other organizations have filed a lawsuit to permanently block implementation of 227. They argue that 227 discriminates against approximately 1.4 million students with limited English proficiency by denying them educational access and opportunity based on their national origin or language.

* The San Francisco and Oakland school districts have refused to ban bilingual education, relying on a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that districts discriminated against Chinese students by forcing them to take classes only in English.

* In July, Los Angeles teachers wore yellow gags to symbolize how, in the words of one elementary school teacher, “Proposition 227 gags teachers from using methods that are proven to work.”

* And L.A. students demanding repeal of the proposition, particularly from Belmont, Roosevelt and Garfield high schools, have walked out and stormed City Hall twice as of this writing.

To overturn Proposition 227, these important but scattered efforts need to be woven into a united mobilization of teachers, students, parents, civil rights groups, and unions.

The importance of this fight comes down to this: Will education continue to serve corporate interests? Or will we make it reverse course to serve the needs of working people and those struggling to survive, newcomers and natives alike?

I vote for the second option. And I hope to see the majority of Californians doing so in the near future.

Audrey Alorro is a Hawaiian-born Chinese American and advocate for needle-exchange programs who lives in central California’s San Joaquin Valley.

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