• U.S.

No Habla Espanol

4 minute read
Margot Hornblower/Los Angeles

Santa Barbara, the soap-opera resort by the sea, is no cauldron of ethnic conflict. Founded by Spanish friars in the 18th century, it has evolved into a complacent retirement community where Latinos, a third of the population, work mostly in low-wage jobs, waiting tables and tending lawns. They rarely challenge the Anglo establishment. But last week, as the school board was preparing to scrap the city’s 25-year-old bilingual-education program, 400 Latino families called a three-day strike, boycotting schools and setting up an alternative academy in a community center. At a boisterous public hearing, Rogelio Trujillo, 55, a burly Mexican-born gardener, argued for instruction in Spanish as a matter of ancestral right in a state once ruled by Mexico and Spain: “We didn’t come from France, England or Russia. We were here already!”

The crowd of 800 in the scruffy junior high school auditorium overwhelmingly agreed with him and made itself heard by waving banners, stomping feet and chanting slogans in Spanish. But school-board members, frustrated by Latinos’ poor academic performance, said it was time to try something different. They voted unanimously to replace bilingual education with a program of English immersion for immigrants.

Four California school districts had already asked the state to waive its requirement that a student be taught core subjects in his native language while he is learning English. But no request had sparked a protest as vitriolic as the one in Santa Barbara. The city’s move last week served as an early warning for the fate of bilingual teaching throughout the state–and for the rise of a potent political issue nationwide.

In opinion surveys, California voters favor, 2 to 1, an initiative on the June ballot that would dismantle bilingual classes and replace them with a year of intensive English before immigrants are absorbed into the mainstream. The measure, called English for Children, is sponsored by Ron Unz, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former G.O.P. candidate for Governor.

Fully half of the nation’s 2.8 million non-English-speaking students in elementary and secondary schools live in California, but bilingual education has also spawned controversy in such states as New York, Michigan and Colorado. And it is a cause celebre among conservatives in Washington. “When we allow children to stay trapped in bilingual programs where they do not learn English, we are destroying their economic future,” House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared this month. He and other Republicans call for a return to the traditional expectation that immigrants will quickly learn English as the price of admission to America.

Proponents of the English for Children initiative were buoyed by a recent Field poll showing that 66% of Latino voters back the measure. Among the supporters is Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles math teacher celebrated in the film Stand and Deliver. He has signed on as honorary chairman of the campaign.

Classroom teachers are sharply divided on the effectiveness of bilingual education. Research on the subject is hampered by the hodgepodge of programs adopted by local school districts, the inconsistent testing of bilingual students and a shortage of bilingual teachers and textbooks. For these reasons, only a third of California’s students with limited English get any native-language instruction (mainly because of a shortage of bilingual teachers), making it difficult to blame Latinos’ scholastic failures on that approach. Does bilingual education affect the 30% dropout rate of Hispanics nationwide–more than double the rate for blacks or whites? Is it related to Santa Barbara’s finding that only 11% of its Latino elementary students read English at grade level and only 18% read Spanish at grade level?

Alan Ebenstein, 38, an economist and member of the Santa Barbara school board, answers both questions with a qualified yes. “As we emphasize English more at the elementary level,” he predicts, “we’ll have more success at the secondary level.” Armando Vallejo, director of the Casa de la Raza, the community center that housed the alternative academy set up by the boycotters, retorts that abolishing bilingual classes amounts to “cultural genocide…Kids sit in the back of the classroom for a couple of years without understanding, and they get disillusioned. That’s when they join gangs.”

Bilingual advocates point to a recent George Mason University study that examined the records of 42,000 limited-English students over 13 years and concluded that those who receive solid native-language instruction eventually do better in English than those who don’t.

In Santa Barbara last week, defenders of bilingualism considered their next move. A lawsuit against the school board? A general strike? A boycott of Anglo businesses? Mirna Nunez, a principal organizer of the protest, vowed, “We’re going to fight this to the end!” Meanwhile, though, the boycott of the schools dissolved, and the kids made their way back to class.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com