ĦAl Diablo el English-Only!

Down with California's Prop 227

by Alan Goodman

Revolutionary Worker #953, April 19, 1998

This June, Proposition 227 will be on the ballot in California. It if becomes law, bilingual education in the state's public schools will basically be banned.

Prop 227 would be a cruel attack on the hundreds of thousands of California students whose first language is not English. For one year, it would throw them all together in classes with other non-English-speaking students, regardless of grade level or the language they speak. Then, after this so-called "temporary transition" period, these students will be dumped into classes taught only in English and left to "sink or swim."

For years, school districts in California have been required to offer bilingual education. Then in March, the California State Board of Education ruled that school districts do not have to offer these programs. Now 227 threatens to get rid of these programs altogether.

Bilingual education is a program designed to enable students whose first language is not English to function in all-English classrooms. It has helped immigrant students survive in school and goes up against the idea that they should just be forced to speak "only English." But this program only scratches the surface of the inequality and oppression faced by non-English-speaking people in the United States. And it isn't a revolutionary solution to what Maoist revolutionaries call "national oppression"--the systematic oppression of whole peoples. The revolutionary proletariat's goal is a society where there will be true equality between peoples, including equality of languages.

Bilingual education is a product of the people's struggles in the 1960s, including the Chicano Moratorium, students' walkouts, and the battles for Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University and other college campuses. In the wake of these upheavals, a series of court rulings mandated the right to bilingual education.

These programs recognize, at least in a small way, the validity of other cultures and languages. But today, the ruling class has cranked up a massive campaign to outlaw bilingual education. And this assault on bilingual education is part of a whole war on non-English-speaking people in this country, particularly focused on Spanish-speaking immigrants. It is part of the same cold-blooded agenda that sends nazi-style INS agents into people's homes at 5 a.m. to drag immigrants from their beds. It is part of the same murderous agenda that has built a wall that forces Mexican immigrants into deadly desert journeys over a border that was built across land stolen from Mexico.

This ugly-AmeriKKKan attack on bilingual education is coming from a class that ruthlessly exploits immigrants and at the same time fears that their life experiences, consciousness, anger and influence are a threat to the whole capitalist setup. Everyone who stands for justice and equality needs to oppose this whole agenda, including the assault on bilingual education.

Banning Bilingual Education Won't Help
Immigrant Students Learn

Backers of Prop 227 call it the "English for children" initiative and claim their goal is to help children learn English more effectively. They argue that because of bilingual education, immigrant students don't learn English. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who bankrolled putting 227 on the ballot claimed, "Many of America's own public schools have stopped teaching English to young children from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Influenced by avant-garde pedagogy and multiculturalist ideology, education administrators have adopted a system of bilingual education that is usually "bilingual" in name only. Too often, young immigrant children are taught little or no English."

Polls show that not only do most white California voters favor Prop 227, but half of the Latinos polled currently support it as well. In fact, partly through these polls--that ask questions like "Do you want your kids to learn English?"--Prop 227 is being carefully packaged as a "pro-Latino" thing. And there is widespread confusion about what Prop 227 is really all about.

Immigrant parents know that without a good command of English, their kids won't have any chance at all for a decent job. And supporters of 227 are demagogically exploiting the real frustrations immigrant parents feel about the terrible education their kids get in public schools. The message being put out is that bilingual education programs are forcing kids to learn only in Spanish and keeping them from learning English. But this is a lie.

First of all, bilingual education programs that do exist expose students to English right away. And they add more English to students' curriculum each year. In Los Angeles, 430,000 students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken. Theoretically, these students in the L.A. school system get 70% of their instruction in their native language in first grade, 55% by third grade, and only 20% by fourth grade. By fifth grade, they are expected to be able to function in all-English classrooms.

But beyond that, most kids who need bilingual education don't get it. The U.S. Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs reports that over 6% of the public school population in the U.S. have been identified as what educators call "Limited English Proficient" or LEP. That's almost two and a half million students. Over half of those students are in California, Texas and New York. And two out of three of these students are in grades K-6. In California, students come from 136 different countries. But in 1994 there were certified bilingual teachers for only 17 languages.

Jai Sookprasert, a California Department of Education official says that only 30% of students who need bilingual education actually have access to bilingual classes, and only half to two-thirds of those students are taught by fully credentialed bilingual staff. That means a very small minority of all LEP students in California public schools are in bilingual programs taught by credentialed bilingual teachers.

It's not bilingual education that's keeping kids from learning and getting an education. It's an educational system that serves this capitalist system--that has no place for millions of our youth except jail or a sweatshop or working in the fields--and doesn't give a damn if they learn much in school.

The "English Immersion" Argument

People pushing 227 say the best way to teach immigrant students English is to "throw them in an English-only classroom, and let them sink or swim." This argument confuses the process of learning English with all that is involved in learning other subjects. Many immigrant kids do pick up English quickly on the playgrounds, talking to friends and watching TV. But learning conversational English and learning classroom subjects are two different processes. And it's not helpful to try and do them simultaneously.

Stephen D. Krashen, a professor at the University of Southern California who has done good research into how kids learn a second language, is an active opponent of Proposition 227. Krashen explains in one of his articles, "When schools provide children quality education in their primary language, they give them two things: knowledge and literacy. The knowledge that children get through their first language helps make the English they hear and read more comprehensible. Literacy developed in the primary language transfers to the second language. The reason literacy transfers is simple: Because we learn to read by reading, by making sense of what is on the page, it is easier to learn to read in a language we understand. Once we can read in one language, we can read in general."

Reading skills are transferable. And not just from Spanish to English, but from Chinese, Tagalog, Arabic and other languages as well. The skills involved in learning one language assist a student in learning a second one. On the other hand, subjecting a student to a math or science class in a strange language makes it almost impossible to learn either the new language, or the math. But a student who has learned basic math skills in his or her native language, as well as reading skills, is in a much better position to learn a second language and function in a classroom where the second language is used.

The bilingual coordinator at an L.A. school explained to the San Jose Mercury News that when LEP students are in an English-only class, "They're not learning anything except English. They can't grasp any of the other concepts because they're still struggling with the language." One bilingual teacher told the paper, "Once they are solid in their native language, the transition (to English) is smoother." Another bilingual teacher pointed out, when students learn in their native language, "You're teaching acceptance. Bilingual education is about being balanced, tolerant, about being educated."

The opponents of bilingual education are not friends of those on the bottom who can't get an education. Gary Phillips, project director of the MultiCultural Collaborative, put it, "We need to recognize an assault on minorities when we see one. And we need to recognize an assault on public schools, where most of us send our kids. Right-wing forces are sensing the opportunity. Groups such as the Christian Coalition want to gut public schools by transferring public money to religious and other private schools."

Behind the Attacks
on Bilingual Education

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that 25 million people in the U.S. were born outside the country. And a quarter of the people in California are immigrants. In covering this story, the SF Examiner quoted a think tank expert saying, "It's a big, powerful force that's changing our country." He's right about that. And this freaks out the powers-that-be.

Behind the bogus veneer of concern for education, Prop 227 is basically about enforcing English as the official language and institutionalizing the dominance and "superiority" of English in this society. The "English Only" movement in the U.S. has always had at its core a blatantly white-supremacist program. Its founder and chief ideologue, John Tanton, wrote a paper in the '80s that contained this racist call to arms: "Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile?... Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!... How will we make the transition from a dominant non-Hispanic society with a Spanish influence to a dominant Spanish society with a non-Hispanic influence?... As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?... We are building in a deadly disunity. All great empires disintegrate, we want stability."

Today, this ugly program is being promoted into the mainstream by the rulers of this country, including in the form of attacks on bilingual education.

In September 1995, U.S. News and World Report ran a cover story called "One Nation --One Language?--The Battle Over English in America." The cover graphic shows a cartoon "balloon" coming out of a map of the United States, with different languages in it. The picture being painted was supposed to be that English is some kind of endangered language, struggling to be heard above a din of other tongues. The story ends by saying: "The question is whether the diverse parts of America still make up a whole."

In the face of such ruling class fear that their system is being threatened by immigrants, the following quote from RCP Chairman Bob Avakian is all the more correct and relevant:

"In the U.S. today there are millions of immigrants whom the imperialist rulers regard as troublesome and dangerous. These are immigrants from the Third World, particularly those from nations oppressed by U.S. imperialism. They have a lifetime of experience with the raw, brutal reality of Yankee rule, among them is a deep hatred for it and no small amount of experience in fighting against it. Further, there are many things in common between these immigrants and the Black, Mexican-American, Native American and other oppressed peoples with the borders of what is now the USA.

"The imperialists see in such immigrants a source of instability and upheaval, a force weakening the internal cohesion of the home base and potentially undermining the power of the U.S. as an international overlord at the very time it is facing a challenge without precedent to that power. The imperialists react by asserting more aggressively the white, European, English-speaking identity of the American Nation. ...For the revolutionary proletariat it is just the opposite. We renounce that nation, we denounce any such identity--we are proletarians, not Americans, and our identity is that of the international proletariat. We insist on the equality of nations, including equality in culture and language. And more, we recognize in such immigrants a source of great strength--a vitally important force for the revolutionary struggle to overthrow U.S. imperialism and to create over its grave a powerful, living expression of proletarian internationalism and a powerful base area for the world proletarian revolution."

What Kind of World
Do You Want to Live In?

What kind of a society would treat those who pick the crops, work in the sweatshops as undesirable? Would ban their language in schools? Imagine, instead, a country, and a world, where everyone studied several languages. Where people learned about other cultures, besides their own. Where nobody was pushed aside or left out of things because of the language they spoke. That vision is not some impossible dream. That is the program of the proletarian revolution in this country.

As the Programme of the RCP,USA states:

"In opposition to the blatantly chauvinist policies of the bourgeoisie on the question of the languages and cultures of the oppressed nationalities, the proletarian state will uphold genuine equality. In areas, for example, where many people have Spanish as their first language, both English and Spanish will be taught in the schools, including to white and Black students, and this will be promoted among the workers as well. Both languages will be spoken, so that neither--in particular the language of the minority nationality--is in fact treated as inferior."

To the proletariat and the people who hate this system--the diversity, the different life experiences, and the fact that many immigrants are not all that impressed with calls for "national unity" is great! It is a powerful force for revolution, and for building a new world. We have no interest in seeing cultures and languages squashed or suppressed. Just the opposite. We cherish and welcome the contributions of people from everywhere, speaking every language, to making revolution and building a whole new kind of society where we can get rid of national oppression and all forms of oppression.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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