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Bilingual Education Now!
Alex Caputo-Pearl

On September 8, 1997 I entered the doors of Muir Middle School to become a Social Studies/Literature teacher. As I watched the halls fill with students eager to see their friends and hopeful that the year would be a good one, I was filled with excitement that I had made the right decision to move from the UCLA Urban Planning program back into teaching in inner city public schools. Before and during my time at UCLA, I spent three years training at the Labor/Community Strategy Center's National School for Strategic Organizing--organizing against environmental racism and for social justice on the buses of L.A. and in the shadow of the oil refineries of Wilmington, California.

Through this experience, I had decided that going into urban planning research would not be my contribution to front-line social change. Instead, I would return to the public schools. Again I would be a white teacher in a low-income community of color. But this time, in addition to taking on the challenges of teaching young people, I would look for opportunities to organize labor/community coalitions for social justice with the teachers, parents, students, and community members who want to fight for change.

My return to the classroom coincided with the passage of Proposition 227, California's most recent reactionary initiative which dismantled bilingual education. I was not shocked that the same electorate that had voted for "three strikes you're out," against services for undocumented immigrants, and against affirmative action would also vote to ban bilingual education. But, it has been humbling to realize the complexities involved in organizing against racism and xenophobia within the public school system.

From the front lines--hoping to explore for myself a direction for organizing in the schools--I propose a new strategy for bilingual education in the aftermath of 227's passage. The strategy is to broadly organize for reinstatement of bilingual programs, to directly defy 227 implementation plans, and to develop an antiracist program for public education reform in inner city schools that counters Right-wing and corporate attacks.

Proposition 227 invited a disproportionately white California electorate to attack immigrants' rights to equal educational access by requiring that school subjects be taught in a language that newly-arriving children would not understand. But there was more at stake. By dismantling bilingual education, many of these voters felt that immigrants, especially Latinos, would get the message: "subordinate your culture and learn the imperial language of the marketplace, English, or be permanently stigmatized in American society."

The denial of language equality is being used as a tool of domination to enforce both a second-class status and a second-class self-image on non-English-speaking immigrant students. Historic racist strategies are being replayed--English-only schooling for Native American and Puerto Rican youth and systematic erasure of slaves' African languages--again with the object of dismantling culture, language, and linguistic solidarity among people of nationalities oppressed within the U.S. Further, let us remember that the first languages in California were those of Native Americans and Mexicans, with English entering later as a tool of conquest used by white settlers in their quest for land, resources, and labor. The racism of these strategies is made clear when we realize that the U.S., in fact, has a rich history of bilingual public education on behalf of white European immigrants.

The attack on bilingual education has also furthered a corporate agenda. The author of Proposition 227, Ron Unz, is a Republican multimillionaire who has long opposed taxing corporations and the rich to fund public education. Killing bilingual education meant for Unz one less "costly" program that demands funding and one step toward even more corporate tax cuts. His idiosyncratic self-interests aligned with the coalescing Right-wing ideological forces that have backed California Propositions 13 (cuts tax base for schools, 1978), 184 (jails lawbreakers at their third offense, 1994), 187 (cuts social services for immigrants, 1994), and 209 (disbands affirmative action, 1996). I see these antiimmigrant and corporate initiatives as the seeds of a neofascism that are being planted systematically: At this stage we can clearly see a belligerent U.S. nationalism rooted in a transnational project to exploit low-wage labor and people of color while strictly controlling cultural lives. In this context, I am teaching the young people who will inherit this world.

The implementation of Proposition 227 has led to massive violations of rights in our schools. Spanish language materials are being torn from bulletin boards. School personnel refuse to speak with Spanish-speaking immigrant parents, usually women, who have been active in school programs; they express scorn for non-English languages. Educational access is trampled upon as parents who want to sign waivers so they can continue to receive bilingual programs (an option provided for under the law) are told that their children must be bused out of that neighborhood in order to exercise the right. Many non-English-speaking students are now staring blankly at teachers as they fall behind, increasing their chances of dropping out.

All the accumulated research which shows that children become literate most effectively in their native language first has been disregarded, along with research showing that public bilingual education programs are vital for immigrants in poverty. Low-income immigrant students must now endure immersion programs which will, for many, foster the development of conversational English but leave them unable to read or write in any language, much less their own. At the same time, students in suburban schools--middle-class and primarily white--are encouraged to become bilingual through foreign language programs and summer trips to Europe.

How ironic it is that students with resources will learn languages, some of them seizing jobs with transnational corporations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or the U.S. Agency for International Development, precisely because they speak two or three languages. Simultaneously, the most oppressed people in the U.S. and in Third World nations are stripped of basic language rights and placed under the thumb of the same institutions. In this way, U.S.-led imperialism--through the IMF and corporations--takes determines who gets to learn the languag-es of the world and under what conditions.

Through it all, the Right-wing corporate agenda to lower the expectations of the multinational working class advances; what better way than by shaping the minds of children? By killing a vital program, conditions are further solidified under which the students--in the age of "pull yourself up by the bootstraps"--will blame themselves rather than the educational system for their failure in school. In this way, young people are being prepared through the public school system to give up their cultural identity and social aspirations to accept unfulfilling jobs or lives of internalized self-hatred on unemployment.

In the aftermath of 227's passage, a group within the United Teachers-Los Angeles (UTLA) union in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has staked out a position that affirms the vital role of bilingual education. Many of us want to see a full reinstatement of bilingual programs. However, we have been limited to building patchwork bilingual programs through waivers and holding press conferences about violations of 227 implementation plans, largely because of the tremendous political constraints we now face.

Sadly, major allies we worked with before the election are now working against us, making very clear that they do not support movements for reinstatement or any form of real protest. UTLA leadership has threatened teachers who are pushing for non-compliance with the English-only implementation plans, claiming that such teachers would not be defended by the union. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) has advised against militant grassroots protest, does not seem to have any vision of how organizing can support legal work, and has funneled pro-bilingual forces into the labor-intensive and "within the law" process of collecting waivers.

Democratic Party leaders have recommended that we make the best of a bad situation. Before the election they advocated pushing for a "compromise bill" that would have ceded the anti-bilingual ideological victory to Unz but protected some elements of local control. In a startling move, the Speaker of the Assembly Antonio Villaraigosa counseled that "racism" not be discussed in opposing 227. This is only the most recent reflection of the flawed Democratic Party strategy of going quietly on record against racist initiatives while not really fighting against them, saying they cannot be allowed to become "make or break" issues. This strategy, shared by Democratic allies in labor and community, has led to an immeasurable level of demoralization among pro-gressives who have found themselves struggling against racist propositions using the terms of the Right, expressly prohibited by the Democratic coalition from using terms like "immigrants' rights" or even "affirmative action."

These political developments have created a difficult context for our organizing. For me, it has led to a painful personal recognition that--by slowly sliding into a narrow focus on waivers and violations of 227 implementation plans--I have been inadvertently promoting the acceptance of 227 as political fact and organizing for a "just" implementation of it. But I know that this is not right. How can any teacher look our students in the face and tell them we have, in any way, accepted a law that ignores needs and violates rights?

It's time for a new strategy. We need to place the fight for reinstatement of bilingual education within a long-term strategy to build a broad antiracist campaign for public education and against all attacks on students of color. Such a campaign would require a labor/community alliance between teachers as union members and parents and students as community leaders.

This strategy needs a comprehensive set of demands that will directly benefit the working class, primarily those among us who are the most impacted and scapegoated because they suffer class, race, and gender-based discrimination simultaneously--that is, working class women of oppressed nationalities and races. The strategy needs to be rooted in grassroots organizing, seeing the waiver into bilingual programs as both a way to meet students' immediate needs and as the starting point for conversations with parents about the need to build power against the 227 law in its entirety. The strategy requires a social movement. We must reject the narrow terms of the debate set by current 227 implementation plans, instead developing our own terms and demands to build a "revolution of rising expectations." We can encourage inner city students and their parents to break the bounds of thinkable thought and demand the top-flight schools they deserve.

The strategy would mean nothing less than rebuilding the white antiracist movement. Among progressive teachers of all races there are generations of white teachers who have gone into the public schools on the basis of their conviction to work in organic connection with students and parents in low-income urban communities of color. I believe that these progressives can be galvanized around a politics that understands the fight against racism and xenophobia as essential to all of us, both spiritually and strategically.

Fundamentally, this strategy must demand the programs and policies that are most essential to transforming the lives of our youth. It requires that we repeal the "three strikes" law and redirect the resources now being spent on the growing prison industry and its partner the racist police apparatus; it requires that we overturn Proposition 13 and its upward redistribution of wealth, overturn the xenophobic policies that came with Proposition 187, and reinstate affirmative action and bilingual education; and it requires that we counter the impacts of deindustrialization and capital flight from poor communities of color with real public sector-driven economic development.

In its tactical manifestation, the strategy must involve three components: movement towards another state-wide referendum on bilingual education, direct defiance of 227, and a programmatic counter-attack to the law. Education around a referendum struggle would promote the idea that the Left, not just the Right, can reopen issues at a mass level. The defiance component involves organizing civil disobedience and zones of non-compliance, ranging from whole departments using bilingual education "illegally" to pressure LAUSD in its entirety to defy the law, to organizing teach-ins on the ways in which racism and xenophobia are being taught in our classrooms.

The need for a programmatic counter-attack is pushed to the forefront by the aggressive reactionary policies of LAUSD Superintendent Ruben Zacarias--in his role as conservative Latino bureaucrat promoting class-based racism within his own community. In July 1997, Zacarias announced the "100 Worst Schools" list, based on standardized test scores. In July 1998, he published the "30 Worst of the Worst Schools," comprised of the schools among the 100 that had not raised test scores during the 1997-98 year, the very year that the already-underfunded bilingual programs were being threatened out of existence. The vast majority of the 100 schools (and all of the 30) are located in low-income urban communities of color. The teachers at the 30 schools have been directly threatened with potential firing and reduced input in school site decisions if test scores are not raised. With this big stick, there has been but the shavings of a carrot--a sum of money for each school that cannot even pay for one extra teacher. Zacarias' strategy is clear: to divert attention away from the desperate need for more resources in the District, while making scapegoats out of the teachers and students in the 100 schools to give the impression that "hard-nosed" reform is taking place.

An antiracist counterattack can make a set of demands immediately:

• Reinstate bilingual education programs, with new resources devoted to purchase of materials, evaluation and placement of students, and recruitment of bilingual teachers.

• Over the long-term, create two-way language programs where non-English speakers learn their native language as well as English, and English-only speakers develop English literacy as well as facility with a second language.

• Reduce class size, provide textbooks for all students in all classes, and modernize the educational facilities.

• Invest dollars to train current Teaching Assistants (almost all of whom are people of color) to become teachers in the reduced-size classes and to train current high school students to become Teaching Assistants. In this way, public sector, unionized jobs can be created in low-income communities of color.

• Establish affirmative action linkage programs with the California State University and University of California systems so that slots are guaranteed for our high school graduates.

• Create a peer assistance program where new teachers receive daily support from an out-of-classroom veteran teacher, and end all threats to "reconstitute" school staffs and tie teachers' jobs to test scores.

• Fund these new programs directly from systems of progressive taxation; raise a popular demand to "reprogram" prison/police monies for public education.

The District is the body that we can pressure with these demands, the institution that holds the power to make immediate changes. We can force Zacarias and the LAUSD School Board to reprogram existing monies from administrative overhead to the 100 schools and, more importantly, force them to appeal to the State Board of Education and Legislature for new funds. We can pressure secondary tactical targets as well, such as the UTLA governing bodies. We can organize support within the UTLA House of Representatives (that makes policy for the union) to pass motions that would bring UTLA endorsement to the 100 schools campaign, and that would bring union resources into the planning of demonstrations at the School Board and schoolsites.

Do we currently have the capacity to fight on so many fronts? No. But we can create organizational forms to begin the work, starting now. Self-interest will bring some school employees threatened by Zacarias to join this project, which is healthy and legitimate. But, the goal must be to invite teachers to rekindle the dedication that brought many of us into the teaching profession. When has the challenge to us been greater? As a matter of principle we can and must move now to develop leadership among teachers, parents, students, and community members to organize not only in our schools but also our unions, our churches, and the great variety of organizations that sustain our cultures.

I hope that this piece contributes to our much needed debate on strategy.

is a teacher in the los angeles unified school district. he is united teachers-los angeles (utla) vice chair at muir middle school, serves on the utla house of representatives, and is a member of an opposition newsletter within the teachers union, a second opinion. es líder electo del comité de planeación del bus riders unions/sindicato de pasajeros a presente y es miembro del centro de estrategia.