California "English Only" Prop Passes

The Fight for Billingual Education

By Alan Goodman

Revolutionary Worker #961, June 14, 1998

On June 2, Proposition 227 became law in California. If implemented, bilingual education classes will be basically banned in public schools in California as soon as next fall.

Proposition 227 is a sadistic attack on immigrant children. Students who don't understand or have limited proficiency in English will be thrown together in the same classrooms, regardless of the language they speak and their grade level. These students will receive no special instruction in their own language. After one year of this so-called "temporary transition" period, these students will be left to "sink or swim" in classes taught only in English. Proposition 227 includes provisions that encourage lawsuits against teachers or administrators if they use any language other than English for instruction in the classroom.

The day after 227 passed, a coalition of civil rights, civil liberties and immigrants rights groups filed suit in Federal Court in San Francisco in an attempt to block its implementation. Several school districts have announced their intention to try to evade the provisions of the law and maintain existing bilingual education programs. Other administrators said that they cannot comply with the law because it would require new textbooks, new curriculums, new teachers and other changes that cannot be made in time for the next school year.

On June 4, several hundred students walked out of Wilson High School in Los Angeles in protest of Prop 227. And 1,500 teachers in L.A. have signed pledges to defy 227 if it is implemented. On April 22, several thousand students from all across the San Francisco Bay Area walked out of their schools and marched on the gleaming new $20 million Concord police station. They defended bilingual education and denounced the spending of millions on police stations and jails while schools are left to crumble.

Imposing "English Only"

The bilingual education programs that exist now in California and around the country are designed to enable students whose first language is not English get to a point where they function in English-language classrooms. These programs help immigrant and other students who don't speak English to survive in schools. And they go up against the idea that non-English speaking students should be forced to speak English only.

These programs only scratch the surface of the inequality and oppression faced by non-English speaking people in the United States. Bilingual education by itself is not a solution to national oppression--the systematic oppression of whole peoples. But eliminating bilingual education will be a disaster for children who don't speak English. Everyone who stands for justice and equality needs to fight against the assault on bilingual education, because it is part of a whole war that the ruling class is carrying out against non-English speaking people, especially focused on Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Almost a million and a half students in California are defined as "Limited English Proficient" (LEP)--about a quarter of all students enrolled in public schools. According to a spokesperson for the California Department of Education, only 30 percent of those LEP students have access to bilingual classes, and only half to two-thirds of those students are taught by fully credentialled bilingual teachers. So even before Proposition 227, only a small minority of students who needed bilingual education had access to these programs.

Millions of people in this country know firsthand what it's like to go through the humiliation of sitting in a classroom where they can't understand the language the teacher is using and are made to feel "stupid." They know what it's like to sit in terror that the teacher will ask them a question they don't understand--or to be made to feel like an outcast, unwanted and unwelcome in school, just because of the language they speak. Now, Proposition 227 will bring back this nightmare and outrage with a vengeance.

At a forum at Revolution Books in Berkeley two weeks before the vote, an immigrant student from Berkeley High said: "If this passes, all the struggles of our parents and grandparents, the civil rights movement--we're brushing it away like it never happened. We're going back. I think this is enslavement. We can't speak our languages."

As schools let out for the summer, there is uncertainty as to exactly how and how much of Proposition 227 will be implemented. But 227 is clearly the spearhead of a nationwide assault on bilingual education. Ron Unz--the Silicon Valley millionaire capitalist and the main spokesman for 227--said that the proposition is the first step in outlawing bilingual education across the United States. And shortly after 227 passed, California Representative Frank Riggs initiated Congressional hearings on a bill to institute a similar measure throughout the country.

A Mandate from the System

The backers of Proposition 227 claimed that they were not anti-immigrant but were concerned about immigrants being able to learn English in school. Extensive coverage in the mainstream media defined the terms of the "debate" within the parameters of two lies: that the "sink or swim" method is a helpful way to teach kids English, and that bilingual education is a failure and responsible for high drop-out rates.

In fact, no serious study shows that throwing LEP students into English-only classes is a useful way to teach English or any other subject. And high drop-out rates--among immigrants as well as other students--are due to the drastic deterioration of the public schools, including the very limited availability of bilingual education. 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 low-wage jobs--and doesn't give a damn if they learn much in school.

For many immigrants, the attack on bilingual education is an especially bitter pill because it is being shoved down people's throats in the form of a "citizen's initiative" that supposedly reflects the "will of the people." Immigrants are told that the vote proves that they are surrounded, isolated and not wanted by "the people" of California. They are told that the vote is all the more reason to keep their heads down, live in fear and put up with even worse abuses. But Prop 227 is not a mandate from the people--it is a mandate from the power structure.

In fact, the state of California had already taken a large step towards dismantling bilingual education months before the election--when the state board of education changed its policy of requiring bilingual education programs and decided to leave it up to local school districts. This "leave it to the local districts" strategy is one that civil rights activists in the 1960s used to call "let the crackers decide." And lack of funding had already denied bilingual teachers to most students who needed them in California.

Leading up to the election, many student activists were enlisted to go door to door registering people to vote and educating them about what Proposition 227 was really about. In many ways, these students bumped up against the fact that the electoral arena is a stacked deck. First of all, many of those who would be hurt the most by 227 couldn't even vote on it--including immigrants who aren't citizens and the students themselves. The same is true for many people in the ghettos and barrios who have had felony convictions put on them as part of the criminalization of a whole generation.

The students also reported that many people they talked to were confused about 227, thinking it was supposed to improve the schools and help immigrants learn. The backers of the proposition advertised it as the "English for the Children" initiative. Nearly every significant article in the mainstream press portrayed it as an attempt to improve schools and help immigrants learn better. A few isolated and distorted "success stories" of immigrants who learned English by being thrown into English-only classrooms were widely promoted. Public opinion polls which asked, "Do you want your child to learn English?" were used to "prove" that immigrants wanted to be taught in English-only.

President Clinton and all four candidates in the primary election for governor opposed 227. So did the state Republican and Democratic parties. But this "opposition" from the Democrats and Republicans was pretty much confined to formal statements--none of them actively campaigned against 227. And all the mainstream politicians posed their arguments in terms of preserving the rights of individual school boards or said that 227 went "too far" in restricting bilingual education. The positions of these politicians have to do in part with some tactical disagreements within the ruling class over 227, and their worries about how they are going to deal with the fact that European-Americans will soon become a minority nationality in California. But the official debate never dealt with the truth that there is nowhere near enough bilingual education--and that bilingual education is only part of the fight for real equality of languages and cultures.

Resisting the Attacks

The groups behind the court challenge to Proposition 227 include the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy, Inc., the California Latino Civil Rights Network, the National Council of La Raza and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles. Ted Wang of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco, which also joined the lawsuit, said Proposition 227 "will treat (immigrant) children like they have a disease."

The lawsuit invokes court rulings from the 1970s declaring that non-English speaking children have a right to an equal education. Those rulings were in line with broader decisions by the ruling class at that time overturning separate and unequal segregated schools in the South. Bilingual education programs in California are in part a product of the upsurges of struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as concerns by the U.S. rulers over their international image. It was in that context that the federal courts came down with the Lau decision in 1974. In this case, brought by a Chinese-speaking student, the courts ruled that equal education for non-English-speaking students meant bilingual education. It is this principle which has been rolled back by Prop 227.

Many school administrators are speaking out against the law. San Francisco School Superintendent Bill Rojas said, "Let 'em send me to jail. This is so offensive and so immoral. I know the guys in black robes will see that." At several school board meetings, parents have demanded that bilingual education programs be maintained, law or no law. On Campus, a Los Angeles teachers group, has collected 1,500 signatures from teachers declaring that they will not comply with 227. One bilingual education teacher in Los Angeles said that Proposition 227 "forces us to be saboteurs...the bottom line is, are we going to be there for the children or not? Once you close your door, people who don't believe in English-only are going to sabotage it." The alarmed editors of the L.A. Times wrote: "Some teachers are now threatening to sabotage or merely ignore 227, but however well intentioned, teachers cannot simply close the classroom door in the face of the new law."

Especially since the 1992 L.A. Rebellion--when Latinos joined with Black people and people of all nationalities to rise up against the system--powerful voices in the ruling class have portrayed immigrants as a threat to the very existence of the United States. Immigrants are scapegoated for the economic turmoil and social uncertainty that is upsetting the lives of many among the middle classes in the U.S. The attack on bilingual education is part of the moves by the rulers to create a reactionary polarization that goes against the real interests of the majority of the people in this country.

What is behind the hate-filled attack on immigrants from those who rule this system? What are the interests of the proletariat and the oppressed people in fighting these attacks? RCP Chairman Bob Avakian spoke to these points in the following quote:

"The U.S. imperialists like to pride themselves on how they have used and absorbed millions and millions of immigrants--we have all been told about the `great melting pot.' But 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 within 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... 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."

The fight for bilingual education poses a very basic question: What kind of world do you want to live in? A society that would treat those who pick crops or work in the sweatshops as undesirable and ban their language? That would torture children by dumping them into classes where they can't understand what the teacher is saying?

Or do you want to live in a different world--where the contributions of people from everywhere, speaking all kinds of languages, are cherished? A world where the people can unleash their diversity and different life experiences as a powerful force to make revolution and build 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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