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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The English-Only Ballot Question

On October 29, 2002, the College of Public and Community Service, in collaboration with the Graduate Program in Applied Linguistics, will host a conference related to the highly controversial “English Only” Ballot Question 2 that voters will face on November 5. For this conference we have invited Professor Bessie Dendrinos, from the University of Athens, Greece; Professor Jim Cummins, from the University of Toronto; and James Crawford, Journalist and former Washington editor of Education Week. They will speak on the “U.S. English Only and Racism: Rolling Back Democracy”. The conference will be preceded by a professional seminar organized in partnership with the Boston Public Schools for its faculty. There we will analyze the recent bipartisan legislation (Antonioni/Larkin) reforming the Massachusetts Transitional Bilingual Education Act, as well as the new policy that the Boston Public Schools Committee just adopted with respect to the education of English Language Learners.

Though billed as a referendum on bilingual programs, Question 2 has very little to do with improving the effectiveness of language instruction in our public schools. It has a good deal to with imposing a particular ideology and highlighting the relationship of language policy, ethnicity and economic class. If passed, the proposed one-year immersion program will impose a one size-fits-all mandate only in our public schools. This is reminiscent of the policies that Massachusetts had prior to 1971. Those policies were rejected because the dropout rate for non-English speaking students – most of them poor – had reached 90%! If this new proposal is implemented, children in our schools who cannot perform satisfactorily in English will be segregated for a year in special classes and then forced into mainstream classrooms, even if they are not ready to succeed, and/or if the teachers do not know how to teach them. This would impact all students regardless of whether they have physical or learning disabilities. It makes no difference! Moreover, these students would have to suffer the indignities of not being allowed to use their native language, while others avail themselves of the “privilege” of learning it through foreign language instruction. Why should one group of students give up their language and their culture, when others pay via the government or private funds to acquire it? Is bilingualism in this country becoming a privilege for those who can pay for it and can vouch for loyalty by first demonstrating that they can perform in English? Is this sound public policy for public education?

When you couple this proposal with the high stakes testing (MCAS) in Massachusetts, the overall scarcity of trained teachers, and the high proportion of absentees and dropouts who are minorities, it is not hard to recognize the high cost Massachusetts students will pay on account of ignorance, bigotry, and the assault to modern democratic ideals predicated on inclusion and full participation. Furthermore, if you put this initiative into the context of the backpedaling and the curtailment of our civil rights led by the Supreme Court, and the recent anti-immigrant sentiments resulting from the September 11 related events, a very disturbing pattern begins to emerge. What are we to make of all of this?

It is precisely these issues that will be addressed at the October 29 forum. To assist us all in better understanding what is behind this initiative, the distinguished panelists will address how the so-called Unz ballot initiative is in essence a xenophobic discourse about linguistic and cultural diversity, requiring “immigrants” and linguistic minority “citizens” to relinquish their cultural and linguistic identities in favor of becoming “good” Americans. In this context they will explore how proficiency in English is increasingly equated with political loyalty; how coercive assimilation schemes are increasingly legitimized and heralded as being in the best interest of the students, and how ethnic/language diversity is increasingly regarded as “deprived or inferior”, with English exerting a “civilizing” influence. Hopefully, they will also suggest how to chart what Cummins has termed “more imaginative and equitable educational opportunities for all children.”

The University community is invited and encouraged to come and hear the discussion on the 29. All are invited to also join the conversation on Wednesday, October 16 from 4 to 6pm in the Ryan Lounge at McCormack 3rd Floor with Chuck Turner, Boston City Councilor, Berta Berriz, Former Coordinator for Bilingual Education at the Boston Public Schools, and several bilingual education students who will be discussing Language as a Right, co-sponsored by the UMB Human Rights Working Group and CPCS.

About the author: Ismael Ramírez-Soto is the Dean of the College of Public and Community Service