- LOS ANGELES TIMES
Thursday, February 26, 1998
- PERSPECTIVE ON BILINGUAL EDUCATION
Alpert-Firestone: Recipe for Chaos Giving school boards
total authority over methods means potential for reversal
at everylocal election.
By RON UNZ
If a pending state Senate bill purporting to reform bilingual education becomes law, it
could ignite ethnic tensions in California for years to come.
The fundamental principle behind the bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Dede Alpert (D
Coronado) and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos), is local control-
namely, placing most decisions on language acquisition policy in the hands of locally
elected school boards. But supporters seem not to have thought through the real-life
consequences of their proposal.
First, the Alpert-Firestone bill would have almost no actual impact on the half a
million California schoolchildren currently locked into our system of Spanish-only
bilingual education. The overwhelming majority of these students are in just a handful of
huge school districts--nearly half are in the Los Angeles Unified School District alone-
and the elected school boards and educational administrations of these districts are
absolutely and totally committed to maintaining bilingual education programs. Placing
decision-making in the hands of these same individuals is simply a means of ratifying
the status quo.
The secondary and unintended consequences of the Alpert-Firestone bill are damaging,
rather than merely ineffective.
There are about 7,000 elected school board members in California and tens of
thousands of other individuals who eagerly eye these seats, which often represent the
starting rung on the ladder of political advancement. School board elections receive
minimal media coverage and have very low voter turnout, while most candidates are
underfunded and therefore desperate to find some issue--any issue--by which to
separate themselves from the pack and draw potential supporters to the polls.
By placing bilingual education policy squarely in the hands of local school boards,
passage of the Alpert-Firestone bill would provide every prospective school board
candidate from San Diego to Yolo County with the lure of the hot-button political issue of
bilingual education. And this would be a severe threat to the well-being of our schools.
Although the vast majority of Californians of all backgrounds dislike bilingual
education, supporters are far better organized and more politically active than
opponents, which helps to explain its long-standing survival in the face of failure and
unpopularity. In low-turnout school board races, energy and activist organization often
outweigh raw polling numbers. Both pro- and anti-bilingual candidates might find
raising the issue to be in their political interests, if only to mobilize their base.
Campaigns on potentially divisive social issues are almost inevitably dominated by
the most strident forces on both sides, who symbiotically feed off each other's extremist
rhetoric. It has required forethought and tremendous effort to prevent this from being
the immediate fate of our own "English for the Children" (Proposition 227) initiative
drive, and our continued success over the next few months is by no means completely
assured. If thousands of local school board candidates each year are bludgeoning each
other with the bilingual education issue, one can easily imagine the level of ethnic
haranguing and counterharanguing that would quickly result. The dreadful busing wars of
the late 1970s might seem localized and tame by comparison.
Since bilingual education is widely unpopular, except among a fraction of Democratic
activists, passage of the Alpert-Firestone bill would probably provide a long-term
political advantage to partisan Republicans. This may explain the overwhelming
Republican support for the legislation when it was introduced last year.
Support for the Alpert-Firestone bill by the California Teachers Assn. and other
union organizations is much more difficult to understand, since the measure gives local
conservative activists the one political weapon that might regularly overcome the
organizational and financial advantages of union-backed school board candidates in most
But neither sincere liberals nor sincere conservatives should support a measure that
could turn language education into a permanent political football. Consider the utter
incoherence of educational policy in a possible "swing" school district: A 4-3 pro
bilingual school board majority might preserve bilingual programs, then be replaced at
the next election by a 4-3 anti-bilingual majority committed to eliminating them, only
to revert to a 4-3 pro-bilingual majority promising to restore them--all in a matter
of just a few years. The very real possibility that educational policy for immigrant
children could change after every school board election is a recipe for utter chaos.
- - -
Ron Unz Is Chairman of the "English for the Children" (Proposition 227 Campaign)
- Copyright Los Angeles Times