• by Anna Alicia Romero • IDRA Newsletter • January 1998 • Anna Alicia Romero

Misleading negative campaigns across the country are endangering the future of bilingual education programs. At the national, state and local levels, bilingual education is being attacked for its alleged inability to properly and quickly teach the English language to non-English speaking students despite research to the contrary. As this movement to scrap bilingual education gains national appeal, the educational future of language-minority children hangs in the balance.

Congressional Activity

In the U.S. Congress, legislators attempted to adversely impact funding for Title I programs and put those funds into block grants for school-to-work programs. This would affect such programs as Goals 2000, school technology, charter schools, teacher training and bilingual education (Lazarovici, 1997).

In its version of the education funding bill, the Senate voted to place $13 billion of education funds into block grants. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Michigan), chairman of the House of Representatives education oversight committee, took a cue from this and proposed placing $11 billion into block grants in the House version. But he withdrew his amendment before it could be voted on in the House. It is believed that insufficient support in the House was the reason for the withdrawal.

As the congressional leadership geared up for the final phase of the education funding bill and pursuit of the block grant issue, President Clinton threatened to veto the funding bill if a block grant provision was included in the package.

Unz Initiative in California

The effort gaining most attention in the education community, is the so-called “English for the Children Initiative” in California. This campaign against bilingual education programs is being launched by a Silicon Valley millionaire, Ron Unz, along with Gloria Matta-Tuchman, a school teacher and supporter of English language immersion. Unz ran as a Republican candidate for governor of California against the current governor, Pete Wilson. He says that as a businessman, he is concerned that bilingual education today is doing a poor job of preparing students for today’s workforce, and he is dedicating personal funds for the initiative. It is popularly believed that Unz is hoping to find an issue around which he can increase his name recognition and rally popular support in order to advance his political standing with his party and in his state (Streisand, 1997).

In California more than 1.3 million students – or nearly a quarter of the state’s student population – receive some type of bilingual instruction. Unz claims that his approach would assure that students will experience rapid language acquisition and can be placed in mainstream classes sooner. According to Unz, only about 5 percent of LEP children actually become proficient in English under the current system, an unacceptably high rate of failure (English for the Children, 1997). What Unz neglects to mention, however, is that the shortage of bilingual teachers, adequately trained staff and resources for a growing population of language-minority students are the root of the problem.

If passed, the initiative will:

  • Outlaw the use of bilingual instruction for LEP students unless the district is petitioned by at least 20 parents seeking bilingual classes for children in the same grade level at the same campus. The process is repeated every year that parents request bilingual instruction.
  • Implement the use of sheltered English immersion for LEP and non-English speaking children up to age 10 for one year.
  • Place LEP children into mainstream classes after one year of intensive English instruction.
  • Make teachers and administrators personally liable if students are “willfully and repeatedly” refused participation in a sheltered English immersion program.

The move to put the initiative on the ballot began in July of 1997 and has garnered the number of required signatures (valid signatures from 5 percent of the statewide electorate) to go before voters in June of 1998.

A groundswell of bipartisan and multi-ethnic support is coming from various groups and notable individuals, including the famed school teacher, Jaime Escalante, whose unorthodox teaching techniques helped a group of students in an inner city Los Angeles high school to achieve a perfect score on the math portion of their SAT tests. The apolitical Escalante has agreed to be honorary chairman of the effort to abolish bilingual education in California because he says that to be successful in this country’s schools, students must be able to dominate the English language and that is exactly what many are lacking (Skelton, 1997).

Opposition to the Unz initiative is coming from several long-time education advocacy organizations such as California Tomorrow, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), and the California Association of Bilingual Educators (CABE).

According to CABE, Unz’s arguments against bilingual education in the state of California, an “English-only” state, are misleading. The majority of students in bilingual education programs are in fact receiving instruction in English and with minimal success. A CABE position paper states that this method of English language instruction is only effective for 5 percent of students (CABE, 1997). It takes six to nine years for students to become proficient in English under a well-developed and well-taught bilingual program (Olsen, 1997).

In a recent telephone poll in California, respondents indicated their support for the initiative on the basis of rapid acquisition of the English language, but were opposed to making the decision a statewide mandate (Gunnison and Asimov, 1997). Instead, those polled indicated that they would be more supportive of an effort that allows districts to determine whether bilingual programs should continue in their schools.

Advocates for bilingual education are countering the Unz initiative with information campaigns. They report that once voters are fully aware of the true objectives of bilingual education and the impact of the initiative if it passes, then support for the initiative wanes (Gunnison and Asimov, 1997).

Orange County, California

Voters in the Orange Unified School District in Orange County, California caused another strike against bilingual education and heightened the attention around the statewide debate. Voters passed a referendum to eliminate the use of bilingual instruction in the district’s public schools by the third grade.

The referendum comes after probes by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) earlier this year of the district’s decision to displace bilingual education programs with English language immersion programs at the beginning of the 1997-98 school year. Judge William Shubb (of the US District Court for Eastern California) ruled that the district was not violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin (Boyer, 1997a).

Complaints filed by parents of LEP children that the English immersion program was emotionally and academically hurting their children were dismissed by Shubb as merely “anecdotal” and not an indication of any federal violation. Nevertheless, OCR will continue its investigation of the district’s compliance with federal regulations.

Supporters of the statewide Unz initiative saw the Orange County vote as an indication that the public no longer puts its faith in bilingual education and is looking for quicker ways for children to acquire English.


A lawsuit against the Denver public schools was filed by the OCR. The district is accused of not meeting the needs of LEP students. The district is in possible violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Although the district tried to arrive at a plan that would be acceptable to OCR to serve language-minority children in the district, it was not enough to convince the agency to stop the suit. Other violations related to disabled persons are also being cited against the district including violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Boyer, 1997b).


A Texas Education Agency (TEA) report found a high percentage of LEP students who are being exempted from participation in bilingual education in Dallas Independent School District. In Texas, bilingual education is required if 20 or more students in one grade level are considered limited English proficient. But according to the report, the district is not providing programs for many language-minority children in its schools that meet these conditions (NCBE Newsline, 1997).


We seem to be witnessing the withering away of the gains that so many in the education and civil rights community made 20 and 30 years ago. Access for all students, including language-minority students, to an adequate education is becoming an increasingly difficult issue to defend in this country. We are hearing complaints that the alleged failure rate of bilingual education is not just cause for concern, but reason enough to abolish it.

What is not being voiced in the same breath is that effective bilingual education programs are not to blame, but rather shortages in qualified bilingual teachers and poorly constructed programs – including English language immersion programs being touted as bilingual programs – are the culprits. Until language-minority children are seen as capable learners and not as language-deficient learners, the debate over effective bilingual education programs will continue to be a burning issue.

Can educators and the community at-large allow our children to be haphazardly educated or victimized by the counterproductive teaching methods being proposed by anti-bilingual advocates? As a country, we must learn from previous mistakes. Research-based teaching practices must be taken seriously to bring out the best in children and enable them to become productive members of a democratic society. Instead, a growing number of people are returning to “sink-or-swim” policies as if these are effective practices.

In this democratic system, our efforts must lie with the equitable education of all children and defense of their right to such education. We must therefore remain vigilant at all levels – local, state and national – that language-minority children not be excluded from the opportunity to achieve excellence in our public schools.

National Testing Update

In his State of the Union Address in February of 1997, President Clinton announced that his first priority for the next four years was, “to ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world,” and he called for a “national crusade for national standards” (1997). Challenging every state to rise to the occasion and adopt high national standards by the year 1999, the president devised a voluntary national testing program in order to gauge progress in reaching this goal. The tests would be administered at the fourth grade level for reading and at the eighth grade level for math. “Good tests will show us who needs help, what changes in teaching to make, and which schools need to improve,” Clinton said (1997).

Seven states have agreed to participate in the testing program: Alaska, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina and West Virginia. At least 15 school districts voiced their intention to participate as well.

However, the president found opposition not only from his traditional foes in Congress, but also from a coalition of eight civil rights groups, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. In a letter to the president, the group expressed concern that the national test may be detrimental to students with limited English proficiency and other language-minority children since the test would be administered only in English.

“We are convinced that in its present form, the national test proposal will not serve the children most in need of educational opportunity,” stated the letter signed by representatives of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, National Council of La Raza, National Women’s Law Center, People for the American Way, and the Center for Law and Education (Lazarovici, 1997).

The resulting compromise was that the eighth grade test in math would be given in Spanish and English. Despite this agreement, implementation of the national tests has been halted until the 1999 fiscal year as a result of congressional opposition to tests in general.

Last summer, IDRA sent a letter to the president urging that any tests that are conducted be done so in the appropriate language for the student. Otherwise, the more than 2.5 million limited-English-proficient (LEP) students in the country would be excluded from the national testing program, meaning that a significant number of children would not be represented in the test results. Furthermore, the letter stated:

    Testing LEP children through an English-language test penalizes those children. Although they may be reading at grade level in their home language, the test results will not show their achievement…The effects could be detrimental to children if the results are used to determine school grades, retention or assignment to special programs (Robledo Montecel, 1997).

IDRA wants to ensure that LEP children are held to the same high standards expected of English-proficient children and that they are tested appropriately.

Charged with the task of studying the possible implications of voluntary national testing, the National Academy of the Sciences must give a report of its findings to Congress by September 1, 1998. Specifically, the study will examine and make recommendations relating to the following:

  • technical quality of any test items for fourth grade reading and eighth grade mathematics;
  • validity, reliability and adequacy of developed test items;
  • validity of any developed design that links test results to student performance;
  • degree to which any developed test items provide valid and useful information to the public;
  • whether the test items are free from racial, cultural or gender bias;
  • whether the test items address the needs of disadvantaged, LEP and disabled students; and
  • whether the test items can be used for tracking, graduation or promotion of students (Conference Report, 1997).

It appears that the president will have a difficult time convincing skeptics for several reasons including the fear of increasing federal regulation of school districts and the concern for adequate assessment of language-minority children. Already, districts in Los Angeles, Houston and El Paso – who had been early volunteers for the test – have retracted their commitment to take part in the national project because of its exclusion of LEP students.


Boyer, D. “ED to Probe Calif. District’s Switch to English-Only,” Education Daily (September 16, 1997).

Boyer, D. “Denver LEP Dispute Goes to Attorney General,” Education Daily (October 10, 1997).

California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE). The Proposed Unz Initiative: What it Means for Children, Parents and Our State (Los Angeles, Calif.: CABE, 1997).

English for the Children. “The 1998 California ‘English for the Children’ Initiative,” Internet posting (1997).

Gunnison, R. and N. Asimov. “Big Majorities in Poll Support Bilingual Limit,” San Francisco Chronicle (December 9, 1997).

Lazarovici, L. “Hoekstra Backs Block Grants in House’s Fiscal 1998 Bill,” Education Daily (September 16, 1997).

NCBE Newsline. “Dallas Found Lacking in Bilingual Education Services,” Internet posting (September 15, 1997). Summarized from Stutz, T. “DISD Found Lagging Behind in Bilingual Ed,” The Dallas Morning News (September 13, 1997).

Olsen, L. The Proposed “English for the Children” Initiative Means Limited Educational and Life Opportunities for Students (San Francisco, Calif.: California Tomorrow, August 1997).

Skelton, G. “In Any Language, Escalante’s Stand is Clear,” Los Angeles Times (November 13, 1997).

Streisand, B. “Is it Hasta la Vista for Bilingual Ed?” US News and World Report (November 24, 1997).

Clinton, W.J. 1997 State of the Union Address (Washington, D.C.: Office of the President, February 4, 1997).

Conference Report, HR 2264. Labor, HHS and Education Appropriation Act, US House of Representatives (November 7, 1997).

Lazarovici, L. “Civil Rights Groups Line Up Against Clinton’s Tests,” Education Daily (September 9, 1997).

Robledo Montecel, M. Unpublished letter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).

Anna Alicia Romero is an education assistant in the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]