Habla Usted Ingles? by Ron Unz
Wall Street Journal, Thursday, October 31, 2002
It’s fair to say that when arguably the most liberal Democratic state in the U.S. has abandoned bilingual education, it is indeed an idea whose time has passed.
In recent months, the home of Harvard and Michael Dukakis, and the only state that voted for George McGovern in 1972, is rediscovering the value of good English. Over the past 12 months, a dozen or more statewide surveys have shown overwhelming support among Massachusetts voters for “Question 2,” the initiative to dismantle bilingual education and require all public school instruction to be done in English.
It’s about time. Every national survey of Hispanics reveals that overwhelming majorities support English-only classes for their kids. A 2001 Zogby survey of 1,188 Hispanic adults found that 79% of Hispanic immigrants would support a requirement that all public-school instruction be conducted in English. And in places like Santa Ana, Calif., which have experimented with bilingual education, dismal test scores have sparked a grassroots revolt among Hispanic parents against Nativo Lopez, an activist who’s gone so far as to push for Spanish- only classes.
For decades, Al Shanker, the founder of the modern teachers’ union movement, was America’s strongest foe of bilingual programs. And the good news is that even now, while union leaders may bow to political pressure, most teachers do not. As recently as 1997, 48% of teachers in Los Angeles overcame the pleadings of their leaders and backed a union referendum to completely ban bilingual education in California.
In American politics, small but intense interest groups can dominate issues mostly ignored by the general population. California, a state of 35 million, may have never had more than just a few hundred hardcore bilingual activists, but since they were the ones committed to the issue, they blocked change for decades.
The last remaining pillar of support for bilingual programs is a small number of affluent, well- educated Anglo parents, eager to have their children immersed in Spanish-language “dual immersion” programs. Since these parents are vocal and organized, their views drown out the concerns of poor Hispanic parents whose children often fail to learn English properly as a result. One such parent, Tim Duncan, is leading the “No” campaign in Massachusetts.
Another, a billionaire heiress in Colorado named Pat Stryker, is now spending millions of dollars from her personal fortune, funding the most intensive advertising campaign in the history of that state in hopes of defeating Amendment 31, a similar measure on the November ballot. The dismantlers of bilingual ed in Colorado are led by a Hispanic activist named Rita Montero — whose own son was forced into a bilingual program against his will.
This David and Goliath struggle between the Hispanic activist and the Anglophone billionairess is an accurate metaphor for the national battle over English or Spanish in our public schools. The tide of history is running against Ms. Moneybags and her bilingual allies.
Mr. Unz is chairman of English for the Children, which has helped organize numerous ballot measures to dismantle bilingual education.