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1st November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 1, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

In two states next week, voters will take into their own hands the direction of their schools on a critical instructional issue — bilingual education. It’s a shame that it has to come to that. After all, shouldn’t these issues be left in the hands of educators? Maybe so, but the nation’s educators have abdicated leadership in this and many other areas.

Consequently, voters in Colorado and Massachusetts are following in the path of California and Arizona, using the initiative and referendum processes to try to rid themselves of the scourge of bilingual education. And those states are the lucky ones. Here in New York, a state lacking initiative and referendum, we continue to compromise the education of our children. Last week, Richard Rothstein, writing in the New York Times, was critical of educational decisions being made at the polls. He cited the secretary of education, Rod Paige, to maintain that decision-making on bilingual education should only take place at the “point of instruction” — meaning at the school and teacher level.
This is pure nonsense. Four years ago, as California voters were considering Proposition 227, the first of the referenda designed to eliminate bilingual education one state at a time, the educrats were predicting doom and gloom for the state’s Latino children. The results have been just the opposite.Test scores soared dramatically for Latino children. The number of Hispanic students scoring above the state median in reading increased to 35% from 21%, while the number in math increased to 46% from 27%.

Leaving the decision-making to those at the point of instruction may well condemn those children to fail.This is because at the point of instruction are the teachers, many of whom are only certified to teach in bilingual programs.These teachers stand to lose their jobs if bilingual education is scrapped. They are also guided by their principals, who are precluded from making their own decisions by dictates from above. In New York City, above means a consent decree binding the city’s schools to provide students judged not to be proficient in English with instruction in their native languages.

Mayor Bloomberg has often stated that he opposes bilingual education.Yet now that he has won control of the school system, the people that he has brought in to run it have the opposite viewpoint. It is a shame that Mr. Bloomberg and Joel Klein, the new schools chancellor, started making appointments before they took time to settle on a clear ideology. This is particularly true with the ill-conceived appointment of the Deputy Chancellor for Instruction, Diana Lam. Mr. Klein is letting her make the educational decisions.This is an egregious mistake. She personifies every failed initiative undertaken here by the parade of chancellors that preceded Mr. Klein. Her support of bilingual education may, in the end, not only doom Mr. Bloomberg’s educational and political legacy, but, more importantly, irretrievably damage yet another generation of immigrant children.

All of the efforts to pass pro-English ballot initiatives have been spearheaded by Ron Unz,the Silicon Valley millionaire who has devoted his life and fortune to this issue. He always works in partnership with local Latino parents who recognize that it is their children who pay the price for the failed status quo.
The Massachusetts referendum looks like a clear winner, a remarkable result in the most “liberal” state of the union. This will offer lessons to us in New York. People are capable of putting ideology on the back burner when good common sense tells them what is right for children.

In Colorado, the results are less clear, but even more instructive. At first the Unz referendum, Amendment 31, seemed assured of passage.That was until a liberal heiress, Pat Stryker, donated $3 million to defeat the measure. For a ballot question in a small state,this is equivalent to the kind of money Mr.Bloomberg and Thomas Golisano have poured into their campaigns.

Not surprisingly, the polls started sinking, and Amendment 31 seemed doomed to defeat. This would be the first setback for a pro-English initiative ever. But lightning struck a few days ago when the popular former three-term Colorado governor, Richard Lamm, signed on as the honorary chairman of the Amendment 31 campaign, and began appearing in commercials supporting its passage.

Mr. Lamm admits that he helped establish Colorado’s bilingual program 20 years ago, but says, “now I’m voting for Amendment 31 to undo that mistake.” The polls immediately changed course, and there now appears to be a small majority in favor of the measure.

Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein have the power to reverse course on bilingual education merely by overturning the decades-old consent decree. With the city armed with statistics on the failure of the bilingual effort in New York and the success of reforms in other states, the burden is on Aspira, the plaintiff in the suit, to defend the indefensible.

Voters in New York do not yet have the power that voters elsewhere do to correct the mistakes of their political leadership. But if Mr. Bloomberg fails to act now, perhaps at some future time when New Yorkers do have the right to initiative and referendum, an elder statesman and former one-term mayor will take to the airwaves and declare,“I’m Michael Bloomberg. I was the mayor who took control of the schools but failed to end bilingual education.This year I’m voting to undo that mistake.”

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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