At local JCRC, experts debate bilingual education, Prop. 227

Because bilingual education raises issues that concern the Jewish community, the Jewish Community Relations Council hosted a debate in San Francisco last week to explore the topic, featuring the major opponents in the Proposition 227 controversy.

"Bilingual education vs. English immersion has an historical resonance for Jews, who remember how important it was to learn English as quickly as possible," said Rabbi Doug Kahn, JCRC executive director. "Currently, area Jews wonder how this initiative might potentially impact members of our own community as well as the school system itself.

"In our area, we have a significant number of Russian emigres for whom English is not their native language."

The forum, held at the monthly board meeting of the JCRC in the Jewish Community Federation building, pitted Professor Stephen Krashen, an expert and advocate of bilingual education, against Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, co-author of Prop. 227.

The June ballot initiative seeks to dismantle the state's current public school bilingual educational program.

Krashen, professor of education at the University of Southern California, vehemently defended the much-criticized current system, while his opponent repeatedly declared California's bilingual education program to be "an utter failure."

The only common ground between the two presenters was that they both want immigrant children in California to speak, read and write English.

Unz initially tried to appeal to the JCRC on a more personal level, saying, "Even though my mother was born in Los Angeles, she grew up speaking not a word of English. She spoke Yiddish, her family's language at home."

He explained that she picked up English quickly and easily in school and graduated from college with a degree in English literature, summa cum laude.

Unz's point in using his mother as an example was to reveal the origins of his skepticism regarding the need for bilingual education. "Instead of children being taught English as soon as they begin school, they are instead placed in a system for many years where they're taught almost exclusively in their native language," he said.

Krashen, an author of several books and more than 200 papers on bilingual education, opened his 10-minute overview with an appeal to the Jewish audience by saying, "The goal is English. I am personally not in favor of an all-Spanish speaking California. An all-Yiddish speaking California, this we can discuss," he joked.

"My grandfather always told me, `Dress British, speak Yiddish.' It's worked for me."

While Krashen admitted that the state of bilingual education in California is flawed, he does not see Prop. 227 as the solution.

"Prop. 227's most dramatic feature is that children will have one year to acquire English in special sheltered English immersion classes," said Krashen. "We have absolutely no evidence that this can be done. Even those critical of bilingual education know that it takes more than 180 days [to learn English]."

Latinos will be the population most directly affected should the June ballot initiative pass, Unz said.

The question of how the proposition would affect Russian-speaking emigres was not raised in the debate and no inquiries were made during the question-and-answer session, even though 70 JCRC board members representing various local Jewish organizations were in attendance.

In a separate interview, Sonia Sztejnklaper, a social worker sho deals with emigre families at the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, said most of her clients would likely be in favor of Prop. 227. "They don't like bilingual education," Sztejnklaper said. "They feel that would delay the process of learning English."

She said that parents from the former Soviet Union want their children learning English as quickly as possible.

That, said Unz, would be a primary feature of Prop. 227, which calls for about five hours of instruction in English per day and about 30 minutes in the native language, compared to the reverse ratio in many bilingual programs, including that of the Los Angeles school system.

"One reason the parents came here was because they want their children to have opportunities that they didn't have in the Soviet Union," Sztejnklaper said. "Education is a clear priority. The population we work with are fairly ambitious people who want to succeed, and learning the language is one of the necessary ingredients for success."

Both debate speakers pointed out that a major problem with California's bilingual education system is a lack of teachers.

Krashen's response to that was, "If we had a teacher shortage in algebra, would we stop teaching algebra? I don't think so. The way to deal with a teacher shortage is to find more teachers."

To staff a bilingual program for the Bay Area's approximately 6,000 Russian-speaking children would be impossible, said Sztejnklaper. "What you see now — and it works well — is what they have at Roosevelt Middle School. There's a homeroom teacher who speaks Russian and about 30 students have one period per day with the teacher. That can be helpful because the teacher can be an adviser and a friend."

Latino politicians and community leaders have been reluctant to back Prop. 227 publicly, according to Unz.

"Nobody will touch this issue because it's considered too controversial," he said. "Most political leaders become cowardly with issues that touch on race and social policy, and bilingual education is one of those issues."

Unz cited almost every aspect of bilingual education as a "disaster." He noted discouraging statistics and condemned its bureaucracy and curriculum, but he also revealed that he has never actually sat in on a bilingual education class.

"They won't let me in," he said. "A number of bilingual teachers have asked me to visit, but when I call them, they say that the time isn't right.

"I don't think they have anything to hide," Unz added. "If I went, I would see children reading Spanish, writing Spanish and speaking Spanish."

Discussing the event, Kahn said the goal was to air the topic "by having two of the leaders of the debate appear before our board, even while our organization is not taking a formal position on the initiative."