After almost seventeen years history may be about to repeat itself in California politics, though perhaps with a strong element of farce. Late last week, the Senate Education Committee voted 8-to-0 to place a measure on the November 2016 ballot repealing Prop. 227 and restoring “bilingual education” in California public schools. The long-dormant Language Wars may be returning to American politics, and based on the early indicators, the G.O.P. may have totally abandoned any support for English in the schools, with not a single Republican casting a No vote on the proposal.
Although many might be surprised by this political alignment, I am not. When I launched my “English for the Children” initiative effort in 1997 to replace California’s failed system of Spanish-almost-only “bilingual education” with intensive English immersion, I sought to avoid the political partisanship that could easily taint a project touching upon delicate ethnic issues. As matters turned out, I got my wish, and our campaign was among the most bipartisan in state history, being opposed by nearly every prominent Democrat and also nearly every prominent Republican.
Requiring that English be taught in public schools was opposed by the Chairman of the state Republican Party and the Chairman of the State Democratic Party, as well as all four party leaders in the State Senate and Assembly. President Bill Clinton came out to California to campaign against us. All four candidates for governor, Democrat and Republican alike, denounced the measure and together starred in a powerful television spot urging a No vote, ranked by many as the best advertisement of that election cycle. We were opposed by every California union, every political slate, and almost every newspaper editorial board, and were outspent on advertising by a ratio of 25-to-1. But despite this daunting array of influential opponents, our initiative still passed with one of the largest political landslides of any contested measure in state history, winning over 61 percent of the vote.
As is traditional with California initiatives, our critics hoped to win in the courtroom what they had lost at the ballot box and bilingual advocates immediately sued to block the law. However, in the weeks that followed, four separate federal judges ruled in favor of Prop. 227 and the law that had passed in the June vote began to be implemented statewide as the new school year began in September. All of California’s thousand-odd school districts were required to teach young immigrant children in English as soon as they started school, though some bitterly resisted and dragged their feet.
The consequences were quite remarkable. Although nearly every state newspaper had editorially opposed the change in educational policy, once their journalists began visiting the schools to report the results of such a sweeping educational transformation, the many dozens of major media stories produced were uniformly glowing, with teachers, parents, and children all very happy with the change, and everyone surprised how quickly and easily the students were learning English in the classroom.
The following year, academic test scores for a million-plus immigrant students in California rose substantially, confounding naysayers and putting the story back on the front pages of the major state newspapers. And in 2000, immigrant test scores continued their rise, leading to a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times and major coverage in the rest of the national media. The founding president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators publicly declared that he had been wrong for thirty years and bilingual education didn’t work while English immersion did work, becoming a born-again convert to “English” and appearing on CBS News and the PBS Newshour to make his case.
During the first four years following the passage of Prop. 227, the academic performance of over a million immigrant schoolchildren taught in English roughly doubled, while those school districts that stubbornly retained their bilingual education programs showed no improvement whatsoever. English-learners in English immersion classes academically outperformed their counterparts in holdover bilingual education programs in every subject, every grade level, and every year, racking up performance advantage of 80-to-0.
The political trends showed a similar trajectory, with Arizona voters passing an almost identical ballot measure by an even wider 26 point margin in November 2000 and the electorate of Massachusetts, arguably America’s most liberal state, favoring “English” by a colossal 32 point landslide in 2002, incidentally putting supporter Mitt Romney in the governorship as a political side-effect. Then in 2003, Nativo Lopez, one of California’s most diehard remaining backers of bilingual education, was recalled from office in Santa Ana by Latino parents outraged over his opposition to “English,” losing by a 40 point margin in America’s most heavily Latino immigrant major city.
With that last landslide vote over a decade ago in America’s most heavily Latino immigrant city, resistance to “English” completely crumbled and bilingual education largely disappeared from schools in California and much of the rest of the country while even the term itself almost completely vanished from public discourse or media coverage.
For decades since the 1960s, denunciations of bilingual education had been a staple of conservative campaign rhetoric—the so-called “language wars”—but with the provocative educational policy having disappeared, the rhetoric eventually followed and fewer and fewer elected officials or political activists even remembered that the program had once existed. A couple of years ago, Peter Brimelow, editor of the leading anti-immigration webzine VDare.com, included a rare denunciation of bilingual education in one of his columns, but felt compelled to explain the meaning of the term, which may have become unfamiliar to his younger anti-immigrationist readers.
Meanwhile, virtually all immigrant children in California quickly and easily learned English as soon as they entered school, and no one thought the process difficult or remarkable. Whereas for decades bilingual education theorists had claimed that it took seven to ten years for a young child to learn English—a totally insane claim that was ubiquitous in our schools of education—everyone now recognized that just a few months was usually time enough, with the new goal being for Latino children to learn English in pre-school and therefore become fully English-proficient before they even entered kindergarten.
And inevitably, the Prop. 227 educational revolution has produced a generation of mostly bilingual young adults. After all, a large fraction of California Latinos are raised in Spanish-speaking households, and learn that language as children. Meanwhile, they now learn to read and write and speak mainstream English as soon as they enter school, while often continuing to speak Spanish at home with their parents and other family members. Thus, millions of younger Californians have ended up with complete fluency in both languages, effortlessly switching between the two, as I have personally often noticed in Palo Alto, a town in which perhaps half the ordinary daily workers are Hispanic in origin.
One reason this educational revolution has attracted so little ongoing attention is that it merely served to align instructional curriculum with overwhelming popular sentiment. Even a decade or more ago, while the policy was still under sharp political dispute, numerous state and national surveys had indicated that nearly 80% of all Americans supported having all public school instruction conducted in English, with these massive supermajorities cutting across all ideological, political, ethnic, and geographical lines, and support among immigrant Hispanics being especially strong. Indeed, I am not aware of any contentious policy issue whose backing was so totally uniform and overwhelming.
But politics abhors a vacuum and although almost everyone else has forgotten the topic of bilingual education over the last dozen years, the small number of bilingual zealots have remained just as committed as ever to their failed dogma. I doubt that there ever numbered more than just a few hundred hardcore bilingual activist supporters among California’s population of over thirty million, but their years of unopposed private lobbying and spurious academic research have now borne fruit. California politicians are hardly deep thinkers and term limits ensured that few of them had been prominent in public life during the late 1990s. Hence the 8-to-0 committee vote to reestablish bilingual education in California.
In reviewing the last twenty years of domestic policy battles in America, the replacement of bilingual education with English immersion in our public schools may rank as just about the only clear success for policies traditionally advocated by conservatives and Republicans—at least no other obvious example comes to mind. Meanwhile, the disastrous political choices made by California Republicans during the 1990s have placed what was once the most powerful Republican state party in America on the very edge of irrelevance and a descent into minor-party status.