Bilingual Ed Shortchanges Latino Kids

Alan Ebenstein is a member of the Santa Barbara Board of Education

When the Santa Barbara Board of Education voted earlier this year to eliminate bilingual education from local schools, it did so on the basis of factual information that pertains elsewhere.

Bilingual education in California is failing. The students who go through the program are not performing as well as students from all other ethnic groups. In 1996 among 12th graders in Santa Barbara schools, 55% of African Americans, 47% of Asian Americans, 46% of whites but only 14% of Latinos took the Scholastic Assessment Test. This figure for Latino participation is comparable with other years. Most college-bound students take the SAT.

One of the great misunderstandings regarding bilingual education is that it is a program intended mostly or even largely for students who are not born in the United States. This school year, 8.5% of Latino kindergarteners in Santa Barbara schools were not born in the United States, yet approximately 85% of Latino kindergarteners are receiving most of their instruction in Spanish. Bilingual education in California is predominantly a program to teach American children of Latino descent in Spanish for most of their elementary school years.


A statistic often used by supporters of bilingual education is that only about 30% of 1.4 million students in the state classified as “limited English proficient” receive instruction in their “primary” language. This statistic is misleading from several perspectives.

In the first place, on the same chart that the California Department of Education publishes showing about 30% of LEP students receiving instruction in “academic subjects through the primary language,” another 22% of LEP students are listed as receiving “primary language support.”

As important, though, the 30% figure used by bilingual proponents does not differentiate between Spanish-speaking and other LEP students, nor does it differentiate between elementary and secondary students. About 80% of LEP students in the state are Spanish-speaking, but about 96% of bilingual teachers in the state are Spanish-speaking. Moreover, bilingual education is much more likely to be concentrated at the elementary level.

The bottom line is that for elementary students in the state who speak Spanish at home, 80% to 90% receive either academic instruction in Spanish or Spanish-language support, particularly during the vital kindergarten through third-grade years when children learn to read and write.

One of the major arguments made by bilingual proponents is that students in bilingual programs not only will do better in English, but also in content areas of instruction. This wasn’t the case in Santa Barbara. Among our 10 elementary schools, one has utilized an English-emphasis approach during recent years, while others have implemented a traditional bilingual program. Spanish-speaking LEP students from the school that has emphasized English are doing better in English reading and writing than Spanish-speaking LEP students from other schools--and their scores are better in math as well.

Bilingual education programs have been formulated by well-meaning people. They are implemented by thousands of child-oriented teachers. But they have not worked. The children who have gone through bilingual programs are not well prepared academically for the challenges of the American economy at the turn of the 21st century.


Only through passage of Proposition 227, the Unz initiative, will change in bilingual education come for hundreds of thousands of Spanish-speaking students trapped in California’s bilingual morass. Only through Proposition 227 will the large urban school districts that educate most of the state’s Spanish-speaking children change their programs. These children have too much potential to squander their education.