Ballot Initiatives Used to Reform Bilingual Education

Published October 1, 2002

Theodore Roosevelt, the country’s 26th President, was a firm believer in the ballot initiative as an instrument “not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative.”

A century later, many school reformers have come to view the initiative as a powerful tool to bring about much-needed change, especially where other paths to change remain obstructed by legislative gridlock. Bilingual education reform offers a case in point.

In 1998, California voters began what since has become a national movement by approving Proposition 227, effectively ending bilingual education programs and replacing them with structured English immersion. The measure passed by a 2-1 margin, despite the opposition of nearly every major elected official in the state—with the noteworthy exception of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Since then, California English learners have shown dramatic gains in reading, math, and English language skills.

Spurred by these positive results, bilingual education reform has spread rapidly throughout the United States. Arizona voters followed with a proposition of their own, which passed by a similarly wide margin in 2000. Last year’s federal No Child Left Behind Act made unprecedented changes focused on improving English fluency, including replacing the entire funding process for bilingual education programs.

This November, voters in Massachusetts and Colorado will consider ballot initiatives based on the California and Arizona laws.

Massachusetts Question 2

The Massachusetts campaign—English for the Children of Massachusetts—is cochaired by three members of the Governor’s Massachusetts Bilingual Education Advisory Council: Chelsea High School Principal Lincoln Tamayo; Dr. Rosalie Porter, former director of bilingual education programs in Newton and a prominent advocate of English immersion; and Boston University Professor Christine Rossell.

Even before Question 2 qualified for the ballot, it had triggered strong reactions by opponents urging a “no” vote and by lawmakers seeking to reverse its momentum. In August, Acting Governor Jane Swift signed into law a series of reforms that included a three-year limit on the time students can remain in bilingual programs, a requirement that English learners be taught to the same curriculum and standards as English-speaking children, and better accountability for progress toward English fluency.

Supporters of Question 2 have called the changes inadequate. Cochair Porter declared, “this last-minute desperation move to stop our campaign will fool no one.”

Massachusetts has a growing population of more than 45,000 students in “transitional bilingual education.” Its 31-year-old bilingual law is the nation’s oldest. But bilingual students have consistently trailed their peers in mainstream English-speaking classrooms on standardized tests, often at an alarming rate.

For example, one study discovered students in a Springfield bilingual program scored lower on average on the English-reading post-test than they did on the pre-test a year earlier in two of the program’s three schools. In another study, reading scores of native English speakers participating alongside English learners in a “two-way bilingual inclusionary program” declined in all four of the program’s schools.

Colorado Amendment 31

In Colorado, a ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to eliminate bilingual education in favor of English immersion will appear on the November ballot as Amendment 31. The amendment is sponsored by English for the Children of Colorado, chaired by former Denver School Board member Rita Montero.

Colorado elementary school students in bilingual education performed substantially and uniformly worse than their peers in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes on the latest Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) reading and writing test scores released in August. ESL classes are taught mostly in English and have as their primary focus to teach children English. The disparities were greatest among children in grades 3 and 4, the youngest grade levels assessed.

Opponents Gearing Up

California software entrepreneur Ron Unz, the reform pioneer who authored the California law and led winning campaigns there and in Arizona, has worked closely with state leaders in Massachusetts and Colorado.

Campaigns opposing these reforms are now underway in both states, with activities ranging from rallies and Web sites to legal challenges, which have yet to bear fruit.

“It seems they’re doing everything they can to avoid the issue of whether or not bilingual education works,” Unz observed.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].