The Battle of “English Only”

Against the Current, No. 102, January/February 2003

Stephanie Luce

VOTERS IN TWO states this past November were asked to vote on initiatives to ban bilingual education programs. Modeled after initiatives that passed in California and Arizona a few years earlier, the so-called “English for the Children” proposal, the initiatives would require students to go through a one-year “structured English immersion” program.

Students would be allowed to ask questions in their native language, but would be given English-only materials. After the first year, students would be integrated into regular classrooms and prohibited from speaking in their native language.

Further, teachers could be personally sued if found speaking in other languages in the classroom, and barred from public employment for five years.

Unfortunately, Question 2 passed overwhelmingly (with 68% in favor) in Massachusetts, where fewer than five percent of students are considered to have “limited English proficiency.” In Colorado, however, voters rejected the Amendment 31, with 45.2% in favor and 54.8% opposing.

Bilingual education supporters say that organizing against the Colorado initiative began in 2000, when a similar version was proposed but didn’t make it on the ballot. That effort lay the groundwork for intensive grassroots organizing against this year’s measure. The organizing, along with an increasing Latino vote, handily defeated Amendment 31.

The initiatives in all states have been supported by California millionaire Ronald Unz, who seems to have adopted ending bilingual education as a personal mission. He has spent millions of his own money on the efforts and served as a public spokesperson, hinting at taking his cause to the federal level.

Others behind the initiatives include the Center for Equal Opportunity, a D.C.-based organization devoted to the elimination of bilingual education and affirmative action programs, and another D.C. organization called “U.S. English: Toward a United America,” which was founded by anti-immigrant ideologue Dr. John Tanton.

One of the favored tactics of the anti-bilingual groups is to find immigrants who will serve as spokespeople in favor of English immersion. U.S. English lists its founder as the late Senator S.I. Hayakawa (when some of Tanton’s racist memos became public in 1988, the group formally removed him from leadership).

Sink or Swim

In California, Unz enlisted the efforts of Jaime Escalante (of “Stand and Deliver” fame) to speak against bilingual education. These spokespeople often base their opinions on the fact that they or their parents came to the U.S., had to “sink or swim” to learn English, and did just fine.

Despite such spokespeople, Latino voters in both states solidly rejected the measures: 97% of Latinos in Massachusetts and 85% in Colorado voted “No.”

Although there are plenty of success stories of children learning English through immersion like Hayakawa and Escalante, there are far more cases of those children who dropped out of school or had worse performance because they didn’t have access to bilingual education programs.

Although research shows that many youth can learn conversational English in a year, it takes three to four years on average to become proficient in academic subjects. It is also clear that certain students have advantages in picking up English: Those who are very young, those who live in English-speaking neighborhoods, those who have college-educated parents, and those with access to more resources are likely to learn at a faster pace. Those who are older, poor, or in neighborhoods where few people speak English may never pick up adequate language skills through English-only immersion.

Unfortunately, the media seemed to focus much attention on the voices of immigrants who opposed bilingual education. Seldom heard were the stories of those who had gone through some of the bilingual programs, one of which we present here.

ATC 102, January-February 2003