- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Thirty years ago, Ken Noonan co-founded the California Association of Bilingual Educators. A lifelong proponent of bilingual education, Mr. Noonan was a vehement critic of Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot initiative California voters approved to eliminate bilingual education across the state, which is home to 10 percent of the nation's public school students. For the 25 percent of California schoolchildren who speak little or no English, Mr. Noonan, among others, predicted catastrophe. The end of bilingualism, he said, would devastate these mostly Spanish-speaking children to the point where they would actually stop coming to school. In other words, not only would these children not learn the Three Rs, they wouldn't learn the Tres Rs, either.

Now, with the release of new standardized test scores, the results of English-only education in California are in, and guess what? Latino kids who were the least proficient in English have made such giant gains that Mr. Noonan has undergone a change of heart that he likens to a "religious conversion."

"I thought it would hurt kids," Mr. Noonan said, discussing the English-only education law with the New York Times. "The exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me. The kids began to learn not pick up, but learn formal English, oral and written, far more quickly than I ever thought they would."

Mr. Noonan should know. As school superintendent of Oceanside, Calif., he made sure that his schools strictly complied with the new law, immersing all but 12 of the district's 5,000 Spanish-speaking children in English-only classrooms. Oceanside's improvements, particularly in the younger grades, are already dramatic. According to the New York Times, second-graders with little or no English proficiency have boosted their reading scores 19 percentage points in just two years, climbing from the 13th percentile to the 32nd. Third-grade reading scores have jumped from the 11th percentile to the 22nd. Fifth-graders achieved a 10-point gain, bringing them into the 19th percentile. Even older high school students have lifted their scores a few points.

By contrast, the news in nearby Vista, Calif., is not so good. There, school superintendent Dave Cowles took full advantage of a loophole that gives school districts discretion in applying the law. As a result, Mr. Cowles has granted waivers to 2,500 Vista students fully half the district's limited English speakers allowing them to continue much, if not most of their education in the Spanish language. Consequently, it would seem, Vista's third-graders have raised their reading scores by just 5 points to the 18th percentile, while there has been no increase at all for fifth-graders, who remain stuck in the 12th.

Mr. Cowles' reaction? "It's premature to comment on which ultimately works better," he told the newspaper. Oh, really? It doesn't look premature from here. English-only education works better than bilingual education. "Something has gone tremendously right for immigrants being educated in California," said Ron K. Unz, the microchip millionaire who was a primary financial and political force behind Proposition 227.

As for the rest of the country? From Arizona, where an initiative similar to Proposition 227 comes up this November to Colorado, Massachusetts and even New York, where bilingual education is just beginning to come into question, voters can expect to get a crack at repeating California's success. They should seize that opportunity, and soon, before any more sponge-like, young brains are allowed to harden with age and ignorance.

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