Nine Years after Proposition 227: What Can We Do To Save Bilingual Education?

I am a frustrated bilingual education teacher who is exhausted from the
waves of assaults on bilingual education. Good educational theory and
practices are officially and routinely undermined, while my school
district chips away at the bilingual program, shaving it down to nearly
nothing. Children are forced to transition into English-only learning
without understanding English adequately; teachers are being mandated
to speak less Spanish in the classrooms; students' skills will only be
assessed in English; English-language learners are overrepresented in
remedial education; and bilingual teachers are being solicited for
ideas to undermine the program. Not understanding English is treated as
though it is synonymous with lack of intelligence. Educators are
pressured to abandon their beliefs in order to meet state mandates. I
refuse to play along with this warped reasoning.

From a historical perspective, it is important to acknowledge that bilingual education has been systematically undermined from its inception. Bilingual education programs were adopted as the result of a persistent struggle to defend the linguistic rights of Latino and Asian students. Consequently, reluctant California school districts have poorly implemented bilingual programs or have actively sabotaged them, with undertrained bilingual teachers, unequal resources for non-English learners, lack of culturally relevant resources and underfunded programs. In 1998 bilingual education received its severest blow with Proposition 227, a ballot initiative in which California voters were convinced to vote to end bilingual education based on misinformation, anti-immigrant sentiments, and racist fear mongering.

Through a series of myths, such as the idea that the role of bilingual education is solely to maintain immigrant languages and prevent the learning of English, and accusations that Latinos and other immigrants simply refuse to learn English, the purpose and meaning of bilingual education have been distorted. The emotionally driven campaign did not provide any evidence to disprove the validity of bilingual education. Even though there has been substantial research to support the success of bilingual education to assist students in attaining the English language after they have become fully literate in their first language, this issue was not even debated.

Proposition 227 was not based on educational theory and practice, it was political. Currently, we are suffering the vast and devastating consequences of its passage.

Now policy-makers and district administrators simply dismiss sound educational theory and practices and furiously strive to ensure that district policies are in compliance with state mandates. From deleting funding from non-English-language materials to forcing non-English-speaking students to take standardized tests in English, the state has made every effort to secure the dissolution of bilingual education. In a twist of logic, immigrant students are targeted as the cause of district problems because of low testing scores rather than examining the illogic of testing non-English speakers in English.

The demand for bilingual education was rooted in the understanding that the educational system is plagued with inequalities and that systematic denial of access to education based on the inability to understand English was, of course, a form of national oppression. Ushered in by the civil and human rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s Chicana/o and Asian activists fought for bilingual education as a means of creating access to education for all students. It was clearly understood that the education system was racist, segregationist and a tool of capitalism as a means of tracking students into vocations based on race and ethnicity, in which people of color would become trained as the most exploitable workers in the labor market.

English-only education has severe consequences for non-English speakers, because in addition to producing language-confused and undereducated people, it also creates barriers within families. Children are often unable to communicate with their grandparents and other relatives because they are not proficient in Spanish. Furthermore, within the context of a racist curriculum, Chicana/o, Latina/o and other oppressed nationality students are convinced that their languages and cultures are inferior.

The demand for bilingual education was part of a larger movement for social change that challenged the racist and oppressive nature of the US. In this period, Chicanas/os throughout California and the Southwest marched and organized protests to break down the racist barriers to education, employment, housing, and health care and to oppose the injustices that were imposed on Chicanas/os by the police and courts.

Since the 1980s (also known as the Reagan era), many social programs that were gained during the civil rights and human rights movements have been overturned. The conservative and reactionary political climate that Reagan was able to invoke has led to the systematic deterioration of the quality of life of people of color in this nation. Racist and reactionary ideologies and practices have become acceptable and popular, even in the education system. It is in this context that bilingual education has been victimized.

My hope is that teachers and parents will engage in creative acts of resistance to this all-out assault on bilingual education and defend practices that will ensure that all students will have equal access to education. The starting point is that we must oppose all racist practices and theories in the education system and in schools. It also means that we have to fight for the rights of all children to an equal education in schools, including the right of children to be taught in their primary language.

Fortunately, with the option of “waivers” as a short-term, temporary solution, parents can still demand that their children continue to learn in the child’s first language. However, we are warned that we cannot advocate the use of waivers, but can only inform the parents of the options. Where the waiver options exist, we should inform parents of their rights. When Spanish-speaking parents ask me whether their children should learn in Spanish, I tell them that the research supports learning in the in the primary language and that the students will be able to transfer their skills to a second language.

Bilingual education is a pedagogical issue and is about defending the linguistic and cultural rights of people. Conservative racists have pandered to national chauvinism and anti-immigrant hysteria to make their case against bilingual education. We have to defend bilingual education, redefine the debate on bilingual education, resist all racist and harmful educational theories and practices, and work to repeal Proposition 227.

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