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California votes for English alone;Briefing

UNITED STATES

Bilingual education faces the axe, but other big states are not likely to follow suit. Tim Cornwell reports.

California's resounding "no" vote in a referendum on bilingual education in the state's schools has been hailed as a virtual death knell for bilingual teaching.

It will dismantle hundreds of bilingual programmes and replace them with intensive one-year English immersion courses for the 1.4 million pupils who speak little English.

However, the three other major states with big minority populations do not seem likely to follow California's lead.

At the forefront of resistance was Texas Governor George Bush, son of the former president and considered the leading Republican presidential candidate in 2000. Bush said that if a bilingual programme was not working, "it should be eliminated". But if it was helping children read and comprehend English, "we should applaud it, and say well done".

Californians last week voted by a solid 61 to 39 per cent in favour of Proposition 227, despite pleas for caution from President Clinton.

Where California goes politically, the US tends to follow. A Republican Congressman from California has already introduced legislation in Washington to puta two-year limit on federally funded bilingual programmes for two million children.

But other states typically do not have the ballot initiative, where a popular vote can directly put a sweeping measure such as Proposition 227 into effect.

The Californian result may say as much about the messy state of California's politics, and its schools, as it does about the effectiveness of bilingual education. The state's underfunded schools have been sinking down the American league table for years, which may account for the feeling that bilingual programmes - and many others - have gone to seed.

Latinos have historically been treated as second-class citizens in California, but that is not the case in Texas, where eight out of 31 state senators are Latino.

Members of the Board of Education, both Republican and Democrat, this week scorned the California measure as "draconian" and "xenophobic".

"To think that children can learn a second language in a year is really a stupid thing to imagine," said board member Dr Joe Bernal, who wrote Texas' bilingual education laws 30 years ago.

"They may learn how to speak within a year, but if you are talking about reading and writing, the real purpose of schooling, they can't do it."

Dr Rudy Crew, the schools chancellor of New York City, said he did not agree in "any way, shape or form" with California's "cold turkey".

Florida officials said their bilingual programmes were very different - 80 per cent of their lessons are taught in English.

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