Language Barrier

One thing is clear: The Jewish community can no longer be assumed to take a cohesive, liberal stand on political issues. Although Jewish organizations continue to oppose measures such as Proposition 227 (along with Propositions 187 and 209, ending aid to illegal immigrants and affirmative action, respectively), a contingent of moderate and conservative Jews support them — and it shows in the polls.

It was the mid-1970s when Judie Levin-Sanchez first heard of “bilingual programming.” She and her two young children had just moved to Los Angeles after a long stay in Spain. When the principal at the local elementary school learned that Levin-Sanchez’s son, Charles, spoke Spanish, she suggested enrollment in the school’s new bilingual first-grade class. Levin-Sanchez agreed, thinking of the advantages her son would have, being fluent in two languages.

But “bilingual,” as Levin-Sanchez understood it, turned out to be a misnomer. During Charles’ two years in the program, his mother noticed her son losing interest in school. The boy said that the Spanish-speaking children were encouraged to play separately from their English-speaking classmates, and that he often felt left out. Then, one day, when Charles was in third grade, his former first-grade teacher approached Levin-Sanchez and urged her to get her son moved out of the bilingual class, pronto.

“She said that the program was a farce — that it was essentially forced segregation, separating out the Spanish-speaking children,” Levin-Sanchez says. “She said my son was bright but would not excel in a class where the children learned at a slower pace. I immediately pulled him out of the program.”

This story, and numerous others like it, helped fuel the furor over bilingual education that led to Proposition 227’s appearance on the June 2 ballot.

Proposition 227, also known as the Unz Initiative — for its co-creator, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz — requires all public-school instruction to be in English, thus eliminating bilingual classes as they are currently taught. Instead, most of California’s 1.3 million limited English proficient (LEP) students would be brought up to speed by intensive English immersion for one year. It takes the current system (which assumes nonproficiency in English, often keeping students in other-language classes for several years) and flips it around — try English first and if that does not work, then try bilingual.

Despite the opposition’s statements and ads to the contrary, the initiative does provide for bilingual classes — but under specific circumstances, prompted by a written request from parents and requiring an evaluation by teachers and the school’s principal. The measure goes so far as to enable parents to sue school officials and even teachers if their demands for English immersion are not met.

The proposed system may be cumbersome, but it allows parents a greater voice in how their child learns. Opponents fear that such provisions would remove the ability of individual districts to tailor programs that meet their particular needs.

The Opposition to 227 camp has garnered substantial support, including Antonio Villaraigosa, speaker of the Assembly, and all four major gubernatorial candidates. The American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League recently joined the chorus against 227. Even President Clinton took the opportunity on a trip to California earlier this month to lambaste the initiative.

Like the AJCongress and ADL, Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea in Tarzana believes that the Jewish community should oppose the measure.

“There are two important values that need to be addressed here: first, how to provide the best education and, second, how to reach out to the powerless in society and make sure their needs met. And I don’t think Proposition 227 [addresses either issue],” Goor said. “It does not allow for individual programs tailored to the needs of the schools, the districts or the individual children. As a state-mandated system, it does not ask if we are meeting our core values.”

Most opponents of Proposition 227 agree with the initiative’s main thrust: that bilingual programming as it currently stands does not work. Where they disagree is in the method of fixing the problem.

“Everybody agrees there needs to be a change, but an initiative is not the way to do it,” said Valerie Fields, a Los Angeles School Board member who once worked as Mayor Tom Bradley’s liaison to the Jewish community. “By making 227 part of the state constitution, it will take a two-thirds vote to eliminate or even alter it — so if it’s got bugs, we’re stuck. It’s a really bad way to set public policy.”

Although the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee decided against taking a stand on Proposition 227, JCRC/Valley Alliance Chair Scott Svonkin said Jews should oppose it. “Just because Jews are so much a part of the establishment now,” he said, “we forget that we were also immigrants. Although our grandparents did not have bilingual programs, they did have the support of their community and of the synagogues, a system that let people succeed. So we need to be mindful not only of where we are today but of where we came from, and afford others the same success.”

Supporters of the measure continued to hold a substantial lead in the latest polls. Their arguments, while mostly anecdotal, tend to be more compelling than the anti-227 group’s philosophical pronouncements.

Take, for example, Doug Lasken, a teacher at Ramona Elementary in Hollywood for the last 11 years. To push a vote by the union, he spent last fall gathering signatures from 500 teachers who supported Proposition 227. What drove him, he said, were his observations from working in a bilingual classroom — where his second-grade students would teach themselves English despite the fact that administrators required English-language textbooks be withheld from them.

“We [teachers] are told not to teach these students English. It’s considered premature because of this theory that they need a solid basis in their own native language to build a new language on,” Lasken said. “You would think that 7 or 8 would be the ideal age [for learning English], but the bilingual master plan goes on the assumption that it’s detrimental to younger kids to learn English until they reach proficiency in Spanish — that it will actually ruin their self-esteem.”

Lasken, a member of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and a Los Angeles teacher’s union (UTLA) chapter chair, said the “inflexible, dogmatic attitude” of bilingual proponents leads to serious problems in his school and throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District: Experienced teachers were bumped from lower-grade classrooms to make room for bilingual teachers, with no resistance from the teacher’s union; the needs of immigrant children from non-Latino countries were ignored; teachers were forced to place “self-esteem” ahead of academics, he said. Indeed, although the UTLA officially opposes Proposition 227, the vote was very close, with 48 percent of teachers supporting the measure, according to Lasken.

“People are trying to present 227 as sink-or-swim, a horrific ordeal where, after one year, the rug is pulled out from
under these children,” Lasken said. “But the language of the initiative does not say that, and from what I saw in the second grade, it normally shouldn’t take more than one year for students to be able to function in a classroom. I’ve seen students who would sit quietly for two or three months and then start participating in English the same as everyone else. One year would give most kids enough time for a really good head start.”

One thing is clear: The Jewish community can no longer be assumed to take a cohesive, liberal stand on political issues. Although Jewish organizations continue to oppose measures such as Proposition 227 (along with Propositions 187 and 209, ending aid to illegal immigrants and affirmative action, respectively), a contingent of moderate and conservative Jews support them — and it shows in the polls.

This trend has some Jewish activists such as Goor worried. “The question here is not just what’s best for me and my children but what’s best for all children,” he said. “Is this really the best we can do in terms of education and in terms of helping immigrants? No one is asking these questions, and these are the questions we in the Jewish community should be asking.”