California is home to the largest population of limited English-speaking students in the nation, mostly immigrants and children of immigrants from Latin America and Asia.
If these children are to succeed in the United States, they must learn English - the question is how best to accomplish that aim.
In 1998, after decades of failing such students, Californians voted to replace so-called bilingual education, which in practice taught children primarily in their native language, with English immersion programs.
By all measures, the shift away from native-language instruction toward English immersion was a success. Not only did kids learn English more quickly, but their reading scores improved, as well, doubling in the first four years after bilingual education was banned. So why are California legislators now trying to reverse course and lift the ban on bilingual education?
The move seems primarily aimed at appeasing a powerful bilingual education lobby. If bilingual educators succeed, it will be at the expense not only of the children they claim to want to help, but also of the future of immigration reform.
Scratch the surface of arguments against immigration, and you'll quickly find the suspicion that immigrants, especially Latinos, will transform America and American culture. And the No. 1 fear that comes up is language. I can't count the times I've heard the charge that today's immigrants are different from their counterparts from Europe in the early 20th century. Latino immigrants, critics claim, "refuse" to learn English.
Never mind that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that Latinos are following in the footsteps of every other group that has come to America speaking a language other than English, not only becoming fluent in the second generation, but also largely losing the ability to speak Spanish by the third generation.
The perception stems from two factors: First, the huge influx of new immigrants from Latin America over the past several decades means we have a large population of Spanish speakers, some 37 million. Second, this population has created a market for goods and services offered in Spanish. "Press 1 for English" is the result of capitalism responding to this opportunity to reach customers.
And for more than 40 years, government policy has encouraged the trend by mandating bilingual services in everything from education and social services to voting. I've spent a career fighting such mandates, especially in voting, but the fact is the mandates existed even before the large expansion of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
The proponents of reinstating bilingual education in California seem far more interested in expanding the use of Spanish in American life than they do in helping children learn English. And that's a problem, especially for those who want to encourage a change in our immigration laws that would make it easier for people to come here legally.
Anti-immigration groups couldn't find a more effective argument in favor of restricting immigration than claiming the United States will soon require everyone to know Spanish, as well as English. Ironically, some of the most virulently racist groups out there would happily force all Latino kids into bilingual classes.
As Ron Unz, the man who managed to pass the 1998 California ballot initiative banning bilingual education, pointed out recently, white nationalists Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor both have endorsed bilingual education. Spencer recently tweeted, "I oppose forcing Hispanic children to learn English," which drew widespread approval from his followers, whose views were succinctly summed up by one respondent: "Long term: a bunch of mestizos learning English will only dumb-down and sully English." Their hope is that bilingual education will lead to the de-facto segregation of Latino kids.
But some nine out of 10 Latinos believe it is imperative for Latinos to learn English. And immigrants are especially eager for their children to learn the language that will enable them to build a better future for themselves. Indeed, it was immigrant parents who pushed hardest for eliminating failing bilingual programs in California in 1998.
Craven politicians of both parties - Republican legislators joined with Democrats to push the repeal of English immersion through committee - will do great harm if they return California to the bad old days when kids who desperately needed and wanted to learn English were stuck in classrooms where they were denied that opportunity. Thankfully, the proposed repeal must still go before California voters. Let's hope voters have more sense and compassion than their elected leaders.
Editor's note: Linda Chavez is the author of, "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal."