Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2002 / 14 Adar, 5762

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Consumer Reports

Never underestimate the ability of unelected bureaucrats to overturn the expressed will of the people -- NEVER underestimate the ability of unelected bureaucrats to overturn the expressed will of the people if it threatens their power. The latest example comes from Sacramento, Calif., where the unelected state Board of Education recently voted to nullify key provisions of a 1998 state constitutional amendment passed overwhelmingly by the voters.

Fed up with the miserable failure rate of so-called bilingual education programs -- many were really Spanish-only programs masquerading as English instruction -- Californians passed Proposition 227 by 61 percent. The new law mandated that children be taught English immediately when they entered school and that only a child's parents could request placement in a bilingual program. Like Chicken Little, bilingual advocates warned the sky would fall. They predicted Latino drop-out rates would soar and test scores plummet. Instead, Latino youngsters have improved their scores in reading and math every year since the new, English-intensive program was adopted.

Before the English immersion program went into effect, only 18 percent of limited-English-speaking students scored above the median in reading. Today, 31 percent do, while only 13 percent of students kept in bilingual programs score as well, and their figures have remained unchanged over the same period.

Similarly, English immersion students were almost twice as likely to score above the median in language arts as those kept in bilingual programs, and nearly three times as likely to score above average in spelling.

The program has worked so successfully that other states have followed suit. Arizona adopted a similar measure replacing bilingual education with an English immersion program in 2000. Colorado voters may have the opportunity to do the same this year if a proposed state constitutional amendment survives a pending court challenge, as will Massachusetts voters.

But all of this threatens a well-funded and entrenched nationwide lobby of bilingual educators. If non-English-speaking students can actually learn English in a matter of months by being taught the language directly, who needs certified bilingual educators who get paid thousands of dollars in extra stipends for speaking Spanish all day?

So, the bilingual lobby is fighting back, with the help of politicians. Gov. Gray Davis, who along with almost every other politician in California opposed Proposition 227 when it was on the ballot, has now appointed a state Board of Education that sees its primary job as circumventing the state constitution.

The board recently issued regulations that would gut the English immersion program. Teachers -- many of them displaced bilingual teachers -- will now be the ones deciding whether to place children in English immersion or bilingual programs. The board also nullified a provision in the law that says all students will be taught in English for at least the first 30 days of every school year.

Together these new rules signal a return to the bad old days of failing bilingual programs. But this year is an election year in California, and voters may decide that they've had enough of bureaucrats overturning the popular vote.

Gov. Davis is already in deep trouble in his bid for re-election this fall stemming from his mismanagement of California's energy crisis. No doubt some overpaid political consultant has persuaded him that he can win Latino votes by pandering to the bilingual lobby. But why would Latino voters back a proposal that would reverse the impressive gains Latino students have made in the last three years?

This latest ploy of the bilingual education lobby is likely to fail. Already, plaintiffs are lining up to sue the state if the school board goes through with its plan. It's hard to argue with success, and there's no doubt that the move to teaching immigrant youngsters English has been the most successful education reform in recent memory.

Only a cynic or someone with a vested financial interest in maintaining failing bilingual programs could possibly applaud Gov. Davis' boneheaded effort. The voters of California have spoken loudly and clearly once before on the issue of teaching English to immigrants. They'll have their chance again this fall when Davis' name appears on the ballot.

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