Language Hysteria: the Aftermath of California’s Bilingual Ban

An interview with Deborah Escobedo on the aftermath of California's Bilingual Ban.

By Rebecca Gordon Mar 15, 1999

The frustrating thing about working for the rights of language minority children, says attorney Deborah Escobedo, is that “so many people do not see them as real students. In fact, under California’s Proposition 227, which virtually banned bilingual education, they’re referred to as ‘English learners’—as if they go to school just to learn English.”

Escobedo has a long history of defending the rights of students—and their communities—who speak a first language other than English. She is a staff attorney with Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy (META), Inc., a national legal advocacy organization, specializing in education issues affecting the rights of low-income, minority, and immigrant students. With META, Escobedo serves as co-lead counsel in Valeria G. v. Wilson, the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 227.

“Kids are not Guinea Pigs”

Passed in June 1998 by ballot initiative, Proposition 227 effectively outlaws bilingual education for California’s 1.4 million language minority children. Until 227, bilingual education allowed them to keep up with their peers in subjects like math and history, while they learned enough English to participate in mainstream classes. Now 227 bars California public schools from teaching kids in their own languages. Instead, these students will have a single year in which to learn English, after which they’re tossed in to sink or swim with native English speakers.

In an education system where the track leading to algebra and four-year college diverges as early as elementary school from the route to business math and Burger King, Proposition 227 condemns many immigrant students of color to a second-class education.

Escobedo continues, “Prop. 227 says, ‘we don’t care how you’ve assessed these kids or what their needs are, these kids are going to be thrown out of their bilingual programs, placed in English-only classrooms—segregated classrooms, I might add—and will remain there until they have a ‘good, working knowledge of English.’ Not the academic English required under the law, but ‘good, working knowledge’—whatever that means.” The result will be “absolutely devastating for these kids.”

META’s opponents in Valeria G. v. Wilson don’t seem to care. “I was shocked by the argument in their case,” Escobedo says. “They admit that ‘good working knowledge’ is not academic knowledge of English,” and “that it’s up to the school districts to bring them up to speed with ‘catch-up’ programs.” Escobedo is indignant. “They come to school burdened by poverty already, and school is difficult enough for them, but to allow them to get behind academically—consciously—and to say they can ‘just catch up’—it’s ludicrous. These are kids we’re dealing with—not guinea pigs!”

“A Wake-Up Call”

Why does someone like computer magnate Ron Unz, the sponsor of 227, think he has the right to make educational policy for California’s immigrant children? Escobedo says, “I call it the hacienda mentality. ‘They can work in our fields, and they can clean our toilets and take care of our children, but they’re not smart enough to determine what’s good for their own children.’” Communities of color must confront this mentality, says Escobedo, “and they are doing it. I think the one good thing that’s come out of all this is that communities are becoming more proactive. 227 definitely was a wake-up call, especially to immigrant communities.”

For Escobedo, organized parent groups are crucial to the fight for a decent education for language minority students. “Many school districts give a lot of lip service to parent involvement. “But,” she says, “when parents actually start getting meaningfully involved, I’ve seen many, many school districts do everything possible to undo the monster that they’ve created.”

“It’s this sort of mentality: ‘we only want them involved when they’re going to follow our rules.’ But when they really start asking questions, start demanding things, and start saying ‘we want to be part of the decision-making process,’ over and over I see school districts back off from their commitment to parental involvement.” School district strategies to stymie parent involvement “can be very simple things like having meetings at times when they know parents are going to be working or holding parent meetings only in English.”

“Immigrant parents need to continue to educate themselves,” Escobedo says. “They need to start holding school boards more accountable, they need to learn the language of ‘school reform,’ and I think they need to work better with other groups.” She also thinks they need to start “walking into those legislative offices” in the state capital, Sacramento.

Advocates for immigrant students’ rights also need to know who has the power to affect what goes on in our schools. A frequently overlooked arena of struggle, according to Escobedo, is the State Board of Education. In California, the governor appoints board members who, among other things, choose the textbooks for the state’s public schools. California’s State Board is hardly representative of its students. “Forty percent of the kids in our schools are Latino; not one Latino sits on the State Board of Education,” says Escobedo.

One of the most egregious limits to democracy in this country is that non-citizen parents cannot vote for school boards or on school funding policies, even though their children make up a huge percentage of many school districts. Still, Escobedo says, if non-citizens organize, they can sway an election. She points out that the Los Angeles Times credited Latino immigrant parents with providing the push to pass a school bond initiative that had failed the first time out. “It’s Latino immigrant kids in L.A. Unified who are going to school in dilapidated buildings. These are our kids, and we need to do something about it. Maybe we can’t vote, but we can get out the vote, we can have house parties, and we can talk to other parents who do vote.”

But working respectfully with immigrant parents is tricky. Escobedo is critical of advocacy groups that take on what should be the parents’ role. “You really have to do it in a way that puts parents in the leadership, and it’s a difficult process to go through. When I work with parents,” Escobedo says, “I tell them, you know, ‘I’m just a lawyer. These are your kids, they’re not my kids. No one knows your kids better than you do, no one loves them better than you do.’ They have to develop their own leadership ability. And they can. I’ve seen over and over that they can. Seeing that happen is one of the most rewarding parts of my work.”