During the past four years, I have had numerous private conversations on the issue of “English” with prominent and influential public figures— high-ranking politicians and elected officials, union leaders, school administrators, academics, activists, and editorialists.
Nearly all these individuals have been skeptical of our entrenched decades-long system of Spanish- almost-only “bilingual education,” and many were even scathing in their criticism, commending my efforts at its elimination, and providing various advice and suggestions. But virtually none of these individuals has been willing to shift his statements from the private to the public arena, regarding any direct criticism of “bilingual education” as being far too risky and controversial.
Dozens of state and nationwide public opinion polls whether commissioned by myself or by non-partisan organizations have consistently found opposition to bilingual education running at nearly 80%, with high intensity across all ethnic and ideological lines. Every major journalistic investigation of these programs—ranging from the Nation to National Review—has condemned them as wrong- headed and disastrous. Immigrant test scores have risen dramatically in California following their dismantling. And still not a word from any prominent political or national leader on these monstrously stupid programs, which still continue to destroy the education of millions of students around America, as they have done for decades. The silence is truly deafening.
Expecting our timorous elected leaders to do what they believe to be right but unpopular is obviously far too much to ask. But one would expect at least some of these individuals to be willing to do what is right and overwhelmingly, enormously popular. They have nothing to fear but fear itself; but this seems more than enough to deter them.
Consider the rewards that might follow a bolder approach. Ken Noonan, the Mexican-American superintendent of Oceanside near San Diego, had been a decades-long supporter of bilingual education, and founded the California Association of Bilingual Educators. In 1998, he opposed Prop. 227, but when the measure passed, fully and completely implemented the required educational changes, leading to the doubling of his students’ test scores in less than two years, and persuading him to declare his public support for English immersion.
The results of this contrary stance on such a controversial issue? Glowing press coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Post, US News, and USA Today. Major media interviews by the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CBS, and CNN. A prime speaking role at Bill Clinton’s White House conference on Hispanic Education. And endless local newspaper and television coverage, capped now by another glowing front-page profile in San Diego’s own North County Times, entitled “A Super Four Years.”
As the article makes clear, there has indeed been a clear cost to Noonan’s position—a handful of local bilingual advocates have occasionally posted critical flyers in some neighborhoods. This is the tradeoff faced by our wary politicians: on the one side, doubling test scores and thereby receiving the national praise of CBS News and the New York Times; on the other, avoiding the issue, and thereby preventing the sting of a few photocopied, anonymous flyers.
At present, the latter course seems the overwhelming choice of America’s political leaders. Such is the courage shown by the present-day heirs to George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Abraham Lincoln.
- A Super Four Years
North County Times, Thursday, February 1, 2001, FRONT PAGE