Over 1.3 million California schoolchildren from immigrant backgrounds, nearly a quarter of the state's entire public school enrollment, don't know English. You'd think the solution would be obvious: let the schools teach it to them. But for the past quarter-century, California schools have been locked into a bizarre official policy of "bilingual education" that requires many of these young schoolchildren to receive nearly all their instruction in their native language (usually Spanish).
As a result, each year only 5 or 6 percent of these children learn enough English to be considered proficient. And although the California state law requiring "bilingual education" actually expired some ten years ago, this unpopular but deeply entrenched official policy has continued by default.
Why? The teachers and administrators who receive the more than $320 million per year poured into California's bilingual education programs lobby hard to keep their funding. By contrast, even though public opinion polls have consistently shown that Hispanic parents oppose this system by over 80 percent, most immigrant parents don't carry much political weight, because they don't vote.
But this year I began a campaign for a ballot initiative that would require that children be taught English as soon as they begin school. It`s already collected more than half of the signatures needed to put in on next June's ballot, and most observers expect it to have no trouble gathering the remainder.
Reassured by the strong pro-immigrant credentials of the campaign leadership, many Democrats have given our measure enthusiastic support. The only public opposition to the measure has come from trade associations of bilingual educators, a few left-wing Hispanic groups such as MALDEF and MECHA, and some state Republican Party leaders who have denounced the initiative as "divisive" in a frantic and misguided effort to win back immigrant voters driven away by the Golden State G.O.P.'s anti-immigration stand.
But bilingual education will probably be gone within eight months, and good riddance. Fernando Vega, a local leader of the 1992 Clinton-Gore Latino campaign who pushed for bilingual education in California in the early seventies but has now changed his mind, puts it best: "It's an affront to tell us our children can't learn English."