- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

An English immersion program taught in California public schools is under review by a federal court after bilingual educators claimed the program discriminates against non-English-speaking students.
Bilingual educators and groups that represent them the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy group (META) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) charge that the program is unconstitutional because it denies children with limited English skills equal access to education opportunities.
"Proposition 227 will not serve the interests of many children who are not fluent in English," staff attorneys with META said. "The state is willing to put these children's future at risk. We are not and they shouldn't be."
Supporters of the program, however, argue that immersing students in all-English classes will help them master the English language at an early age and benefit them in future efforts to seek employment.
"The time has come to implement the solution for a system that has been a shameful disservice to our state's English-learning students," said Sharon L. Browne, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is challenging the groups' charges in court.
The federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule on the program within the next three months.
The state's public school population is ethnically diverse, according to statistics compiled this year by the California Department of Education. Out of nearly 6.1 million students, 2.7 million are Hispanic and about 484,220 are Asian. About 2.1 million are white and about 510,770 are black.
Student test scores show that the English immersion program has helped non-English-speaking students. Thirty-one percent of limited English-speaking students scored above average in reading tests, compared with 18 percent before the immersion program went into effect, according to program educators. English immersion students were also almost twice as likely to score above average in language arts as those kept in bilingual programs, and nearly three times as likely to score above average in spelling.
The immersion program has worked so well in California that, according to supporters, other states have followed suit.
Arizona adopted a similar measure when it replaced bilingual education with an English immersion program in 2000. Voters in Massachusetts could get the opportunity to do the same this year, as will voters in Colorado if a proposed state constitutional amendment survives a pending court ruling.
The English immersion program in California replaced the state's bilingual education system in 1998 under Proposition 227, a state code mandating that children be taught English almost immediately once they enter school.
In contrast, bilingual education requires children who do not speak English to be taught in their native tongue and gradually eased into mainstream classes, a teaching strategy that some studies say hinders overall student performance. Bilingual education is still an option under the law.
Under Proposition 227, special classes taught in a language other than English cannot last longer than one year. After that, English learners are moved into mainstream classes. The law also states that only a child's parents not school administrators can request placement in a bilingual program.
The Pacific Legal Foundation is representing five parents who claim school officials in Salinas, Calif., placed their children in bilingual classes after the parents had specifically asked for immersion classes.


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