In June 1998, Californians overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227, the controversial ballot initiative that replaced the state’s bilingual-ed system with English-immersion classes. No more would California’s public schools force non-English-speaking immigrant kits to take their courses in their native tongue, guaranteeing that few would ever gain the proficiency in English they need to get ahead in America. Despite resistance from some local school districts and bilingual-ed advocates, nearly a million immigrant students, most of them Hispanic, transferred into the new English-immersion system.
The results are in, and they’re striking: in just two years, the standardized test scores of immigrant students rocketed up 40 percent. The Oceanside Unified District that followed Proposition 227 to the letter saw its second-grade immigrant scores go from the 21st to the 47th percentile, meaning that the children of poor, often illiterate, Spanish-speaking farmworkers have nearly reached the national average for suburban white kids from middle-class English-speaking families. In stark contrast, neighboring Vista Unified, a district of similar size and demography that stubbornly kept most of its kids in bilingual classes, watched most immigrant scores fall this past year.
English immersion’s dramatic California success has broken through the silence and misinformation that has long surrounded America’s disastrous 30-year bilingual-ed experiment. Newspapers from coast to coast, including the New York Times, trumpeted the results; television networks showed Hispanic children who didn’t speak a word of English at the school year’s start now reading, writing, and speaking English fluently after just nine months’ immersion. Now Arizona stands poised to abolish its segregated bilingual classes in a statewide ballot initiative this November.
Will this wave of English instruction reach New York City, where 150,000 immigrant kids remain imprisoned in bilingual ed? Indications are that the New York press would now fully support a shift to English immersion. More important, doing away with the bilingual-ed system resonates with the vast majority of New Yorkers, many of whom are just a couple of generations removed from the old country. Several recent Zogby polls have found that between 75 percent and 80 percent of New York residents support a requirement that public school teaching be entirely in English. The support crosses ethnic and ideological lines, so it’s a political no-brainer.
Unfortunately, New York City schools currently operate under a 1974 consent decress that forces all Spanish-speaking public school kids to receive their instruction in Spanish. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani should go to court to get this order lifted. The gift of English to his Hispanic constituents’ children would be a truly lasting legacy.