The Decline and Rebirth of “English”—A Media Compendium

Many years from now, when the definitive educational histories of late 20th Century America are finally written, the story of “bilingual education” will certainly rank as one of the more bizarre episodes.

For nearly thirty years, millions of Latino children, some immigrant and some native born, were not taught the English language in our public schools, but were instead taught almost entirely in Spanish, frequently preventing them from ever becoming fluent or literate in the language of this country.

This demented educational program, based on theoretical lunacy, was desired by almost no one and opposed by almost everyone, yet nonetheless still grew and grew and grew, destroying the educations and lives of countless millions, and taking our nation far down the path toward to an uncertain fate.

Despite its massive size and impact, the system of bilingual education received just negligible media coverage throughout those long, bitter decades. And in this vast cavern of embarrassed media silence, the views of the overwhelmingly many were easily shouted down by the voices of the tiny but committed few. The story of the growth and entrenchment of these bilingual education programs constitutes a truly impressive and most remarkable illustration of the powerful dynamics of special- interest group politics.

And as that disastrous story is now reaching— thankfully—its long-awaited close, the primary sources of that political trajectory assume a special significance, less for day-to-day journalists than for the prospective writers of histories. Given this need, I am pleased to announce that the bulk of these primary source news material have now been gathered together in one convenient location on the Internet, allowing them to be easily explored in their entirety.

Five years ago, when we launched our website near the start of our California initiative drive, the media articles we made available were restricted solely to the Proposition 227 campaign. Then, as we later launched successful initiative campaigns first in Arizona and more recently in Massachusetts and Colorado, this web site expanded to contain articles germane to those efforts as well. But now, as our movement has reached its stage of national presence, the entire subject area of “English” in its broadest historical dimensions has become important.

Therefore, as we spent the last few months intensely upgrading and modifying the underlying architecture of this web site, we simultaneously added an exhaustive media history of bilingual education in America, from its earliest mentions in the mid-1970s down to yesterday’s news stories, ultimately more than tripling the news content displayed. This massive quantity of media information—many thousands of articles, editorials, opinion pieces, and other items— effectively charts the ebb and flow—mostly the flow—of this system.

These pieces are also separately grouped by national or California geographical region, allowing the local history of this educational movement to be effectively traced by the curious, whether pundits or scholars.

One of the most visible aspects of this presentation is the striking media impact of our original 1998 California initiative. The twelve short months surrounding the June 3rd, 1998 vote seem to have generated more media coverage on the topic of bilingual education than the previous twenty-five years combined, demonstrating that the impact of a highly-successful major initiative campaign can be as much educational as legal or political.


As scholars eventually undertake the close examination of these nearly thirty years of articles, fascinating individual vignettes become apparent, many of them highly damaging to preconceived ideological notions.

For example, by reviewing some of the earliest stories, we discover that the national teachers unions, particularly the American Federation of Teachers led by the legendary Al Shanker, were among the most vigorous early opponents of bilingual education, unsuccessfully placing great pressure on the Democratic Party to abandon that misbegotten educational dogma.

Al Shanker and the AFT fought Bilingual Ed from the Beginning

Furthermore, although I had possessed a clear and unmistakable impression that the Reagan Administration had undertaken an enormous political effort to uproot bilingual programs, the actual facts seem very different. The Administration appears to have merely made a few occasional noises on the subject, then quickly retreated under fire, bringing to mind an inverted version of Teddy Roosevelt’s words, namely “speaking loudly but carrying a very small stick.”

Reagan Administration Spoke Loudly But Did Little

We learn Michael Barone, who has recently written some very forceful critiques on the strange unwillingness of current politicians to confront this important issue, is no Johnny-Come-Lately to the subject, having said much the same thing in the Washington Post almost twenty years ago.

Michael Barone on Bilingual Education, 1984-2002

Similarly, a huge national study commissioned by the Carter Administration, concluded that bilingual education didn’t work; nearly twenty-five years later, this important Carter Administration discovery has apparently still not reached the upper ranks of the second Bush Administration.

Carter Administration Study Debunks Bilingual Education


Then during the mid-1980s, bilingual education suffered a series of seemingly crushing political blows in California, with the landslide passage of a (somewhat xenophobic) English-only initiative, the repeated vetoing of legislative attempts to renew the state’s expiring bilingual education law by Gov. George Deukmejian, and—most stunningly— a landslide referendum by the members of the enormously powerful Los Angeles teachers union to eliminate all bilingual programs. Despite what might have seemed like fatal wounds, the program did not merely survive, but actually tripled in size over the next decade.

The Mid-1980s Bilingual Growth Spurt in California

The speeches of our esteemed current President have repeatedly praised “bilingual education programs that work and teach English.” These words might have almost directly been lifted from prominent figures in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton Administrations of the 1980s and 1990s. Yet during all those years, no one has ever yet been able to locate such a program on a large scale that actually DOES work. Presumably those programs “that work” all dwell somewhere in the Land of Fairie, administered by unicorns, staffed by leprechauns, and aimed at teaching English to the children of the Abominable Snowman.

Twenty Years of Presidential Support for Bilingual Ed Programs “That Work”.


However, during all these years, a small and determined handful of voices crying in the wilderness have stood their ground for “English.” For example, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, one of major papers in Massachusetts, has recently run several editorials supporting our “English” initiative in that state. This is hardly due to the persuasiveness of our own arguments since over the last six years alone, that paper had run a total of TWENTY-NINE previous editorials saying much the same thing, but with no legislative action whatsoever. Other major newspapers such as the Boston Globe and Boston Herald had run additional dozens of editorials. On a national level, the highly-regarded Washington Post has run a dozen editorials similarly critical of bilingual education.

Worcester Telegram Editorials

Washington Post Editorials


Although I suspect that bilingual education will soon disappear as a subject of inquiry in our Schools of Education—perhaps taking some of those Schools along to perdition with it—I am equally strong in my expectation that the history and politics of this policy will eventually become a major focus of doctoral dissertations, scholarly articles, and theoretical volumes in the fields of political science and the study of democratic institutions.

Many of the prominent names in this long and sordid history may eventually become boring but endlessly memorized ID terms in Freshman History classes, together with Pol Pot, the Spanish Inquisition, and—most appropriately of all—those 19th Century surgeons who repeatedly debunked the strange notion that washing filthy hands helped prevent the spread of disease.

And at the other end of the spectrum, little Latino children throughout America may some day all learn the story of how Lenin Lopez of Los Angeles, a poor immigrant garment worker, finally decided one day that he would boycott his local elementary school until it agreed to teach his little daughter English—and thereby unknowingly began a movement that ultimately caused all the other Latino children in America to be taught English in school as well.

Lenin Lopez and the Los Angeles Latino Boycott

And this, after all, is how history books come to be written, and legends established.

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