The state of Oregon is poised to become the latest in a series of states to pass laws limiting how kids who speak foreign languages at home, can learn English.
Over the last ten years, voters in three states have passed laws tightly restricting how much help students can get in their native languages.
State houses across the country have also taken up the issue, though with less dramatic results. Rob Manning reports.
Roughly 67,000 Oregon children get help learning English. They’re often taught in special classes where they’re given language help, while they learn math or science.
Many Oregon schools also have the option of taking bilingual classes particularly for Spanish-speaking kids.
But if you ask Rick Hickey neither approach is working.
Rick Hickey: “Bilingual programs for thirty years are a tragedy to these immigrant children. They’ve failed miserably.”
Hickey has two kids in this Salem-area middle school. He also represents Oregonians for Immigration Reform, a tough-on-illegal immigration group.
The group supports Measure 58, which would limit bilingual programs to two years, and would mainstream immigrant children within two years. He says teaching kids through fast-paced English immersion has worked in states where voters passed similar initiatives.
Rick Hickey: “What this’ll do is make sure that they are learning how to read, write, and speak English, because right now, a lot of these so-called programs are Spanish monolingual programs. They are not teaching these kids how to read, write and speak English. This will make sure that they are.”
But many researchers say immersion is not working.
James Crawford is the president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy. He says test scores show problems in the English-only states of Arizona, California and Massachusetts. He believes Measure 58 would be worse.
James Crawford: “Measure 58 in Oregon is by far the most extreme of these initiatives, because it has absolutely no flexibility. It’s mostly about setting time limits for special programs to help kids learn English.”
Bill Sizemore: “There is this education establishment that loves bilingualism.”
That’s Bill Sizemore. He’s the author of Measure 58 and a long-time critic of taxes and teachers’ unions. He says researchers like Crawford are biased.
Bill Sizemore: “They oppose any effort to use immersion as the only way of teaching kids from a foreign country to learn English and to be mainstreamed in America. It’s almost shocking to me how entrenched they are and how close-minded they are to success.”
Oregon spends an extra $2600 a year on each student in ESL programs. Sizemore says Measure 58 would save money by mainstreaming kids after a year or two.
Opponents say that initiatives in other states have increased costs, because students don’t always learn at a high speed.
Gustavo Mazon-Mayan is a sophomore at a Portland high school. He came to the U.S. five years ago from Cuba. He says he’s been in regular classes, some. But he prefers ESL classes.
Gustavo Mazon-Mayan: “Like last year, when I get to an English class, or a regular class, I don’t want to ask questions, because I don’t want all the other students to fall behind because of me. So I just kind of sit there, shy.”
But if history is any guide, voters may pay little attention to student experiences or the research. Oregon State University political scientist, Bill Lunch says voters see English immersion measures as part of the politically charged issue of immigration. And that's what supporters are counting on.
Bill Lunch: “This kind of measure appears on the ballot as a way of stimulating participation, increasing participation by people who have a gut reaction against immigrants, or illegal immigrants, or quite frankly, people who are different from themselves in some significant fashion.”
Supporters of initiatives like Oregon Ballot Measure 58 used to believe that requiring English immersion were guaranteed winners. But voters in Colorado defeated a similar measure in 2002.
And in the states where voters did pass sweeping initiatives, lawmakers and judges wound up intervening to clarify the details.
Advocates on both sides of the issue in Oregon anticipate visits to the state house and courtrooms, if Measure 58 passes next month.