Sacramento operates in a universe separate from much of the world, its lawmakers anguishing over whether to vote for a completely sanitized statement supporting American troops but not batting an eye at blowing several billion of our tax dollars this year by failing to make painful budget cuts.
The upside-down rules that keep the statehouse operating like a mental ward much of the time were evident on March 25 when new state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell called a press conference to release some of the first big education news of his administration-then turned out to be too politically correct to explain what his big news really meant, which in turn caused his big news to get largely ignored.
I'm talking about the truly staggering statewide test scores released by O'Connell that show Spanish-speaking children and other immigrants are learning to read, write and comprehend English at unprecedented levels.
After two decades of sagging achievement and growing illiteracy rates among California's Spanish-speaking students, 2003 is the second year those kids have shown big, historically unusual jumps in English fluency and comprehension. The so-called CELDT test comes on the heels of five years of vastly improving grades for many immigrant kids on subject-matter tests such as the Stanford 9.
This is rare good news from the public schools. To many, English literacy marks the single most important toehold Latinos must gain in order to grow a strong middle class in California, and everybody agrees we desperately need that.
Sacramento reacted in typical fashion. The Latino Legislative Caucus suddenly went invisible, making no comments on the statewide gains by 860,000 children whose first language is not English, 34 percent of whom the CELDT test said are now A and B students in English. Four of five Latino legislators I sought for comment on the great scores of Latino children never called back. La Opinion , the biggest Spanish-language newspaper in California, didn't quote a single prideful Latino elected official dying to get in on the happy news. You'd have thought the Superintendent of Schools had just rolled a big fat stink bomb down the hall.
See, many in the Latino Caucus are still very upset that California voters in 1998 approved Proposition 227, which largely banned the failed bilingual-education program that kept kids in Spanish for five years, leaving them too far behind in English to ever catch up.
Not a single Latino politician in California supported Prop. 227 because it required that children be immersed in English. The hip, urban Latino politicians in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco predicted children would be so traumatized by English they would cry their way through school, so unable to understand that achievement would plummet.
But the opposite happened the year immersion English was launched, and each year after that. The kids loved it. Immersion English was coupled with an intensive return to phonics, which the bilingual-education crowd vilified as an assault on Latinos. Test scores skyrocketed. Latino third-graders, once lavishly praised by teachers if they simply managed to recite the English alphabet, now hungrily read books and whatever else they can grab in English-a transformation I have witnessed in a dozen mutations. In a world that makes sense, the adults would have come around by now.
But Sacramento doesn't make sense.
State Sen. John Vasconcellos, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, recently perfectly captured the utter disinterest from topmost Sacramento power brokers toward a phenomenon that serious educators around the nation see as a nearly miraculous turnaround in California's heavily Latino schools.
"I don't have any particular feeling about what the test results show," Vasconcellos told me, huffing derisively. "I care more about things more personal than test results-give me a break!"
And that's why I winced with empathy as new Supt. O'Connell took the gutless way out on March 25, failing to credit the law that forced schools to teach English for being a key reason kids are learning English. (I attended this via teleconference).
Yes, intensive work with teachers and raising the bar for kids has been a big factor, as O'Connell pointed out. But if English hadn't been forced on schools, the powerful bilingual lobby would never have been broken. California's Latino children today probably would be taught intensive phonics and show gains in reading and writing-but in Spanish. That's the inescapable truth.
It doesn't bode well for kids when a politician like O'Connell, swept into office by a wide margin and not facing re-election again for another four years, chooses not to speak the plain truth when he's got a story to tell. O'Connell leaves the door open for claims that unrelated reforms, like class-size reduction, got kids literate in English. (Serious research shows that unless the number of children is slashed to private-school levels of about 15, children do not learn more in smaller classes.)
"O'Connell has lots of learning to do after a performance like that," says one reading expert in Los Angeles Unified School District. "Bilingual has been shown to be a complete failed cause.... What is the state doing about districts where the bilingual true believers are still in charge?"
One Department of Education spokesman said O'Connell did not offer an opinion of immersion English because the department has not compared immersion English classrooms to the kids still stuck in Spanish at request of their parents. However, the spokesman told the gathered journalists, "we hope to extract that data."
So the vast Department of Education has not made these constantly requested comparisons in the five years since immersion hit the classrooms?
I don't mean to unjustly target poor ol' Jack O'Connell. I hear that this former Santa Barbara state legislator is a good man. But it's crucially important to know whether or not we have a wimp in charge of education.
That's because this year, I have learned from a number of sources, under the guise of budget cutting, hardcore advocates in Sacramento who oppose Latino kids soaking up all this English reading and writing ability hope to make a serious hit on immersion English.
"What you are going to see in Sacramento is a move away from testing because the tests show immersion English works too well-we've crunched the numbers on our own and there's simply no debate on it," says Oceanside School District Superintendent Ken Noonan.
Noonan, a Mexican-American (despite his last name), helped launch the bilingual-education movement and is now an outspoken convert to immersion English. He says some Latino pols can't stand having "these tests remain, showing how little good bilingual is doing."
Those targeting immersion English, several sources tell me, include Marco Firebaugh, chairman of the Latino Legislative Caucus; Jackie Goldberg, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee; and seething lawyers from bilingual education's glory days who recently sued the state Board of Education at the urging of Goldberg and Firebaugh.
One source high in Sacramento's education officialdom tells me, "Yes, we are expecting big hits on testing. But we all have to be really, really careful what we say, and nobody wants their names attributed in talking with you on this issue because they will be personally targeted in an ugly, ugly way-and Marco Firebaugh is the biggest slammer of all. Firebaugh is the one to be feared. You must be prepared, if you go against Firebaugh or the Latino Caucus on immersion English, to be called a racist. To go up against them as an employee of the state, you have to be a Latino. We cannot have any white employees make any arguments for English immersion or against bilingual. We have to put our Latino employees out there."
An education expert tells me Firebaugh finally visited the L.A. Unified School District immersion program, where immigrant kids are soaring for the first time in the memory of the oldest teachers, and are quickly closing in on suburban kids in achievements in reading and math. It's truly amazing.
But, said this expert, "Marco Firebaugh went to L.A. and saw the program working and said he hated it, and it's crazy. Why does he hate it? Because it's a crazy world, that's why." (Firebaugh did not return my call.)
Let me suggest another theory. We are witnessing the sort of entrenched jealousy that balloons into years of feuding in Sacramento. Latino leaders badly missed the boat on English immersion, now so popular with Latino parents that voters in Santa Ana-including Latinos-recently recalled a bilingual-education fanatic from their school board.
Nancy Ichinaga, a member of the state Board of Education and a renowned educator who wrestled Inglewood's troubled elementary schools above the national median in reading and math, says: "It makes you feel bad that the Latino politicians in Sacramento can't be trusted to do what's right for kids, and citizens are the ones who have to carry the load."
It doesn't make me feel bad, just furious. It's time for state leaders to relocate their backbones and admit that without Prop. 227, we'd be churning out children who can't read or write in English, and the debate would still be about how to turn that train wreck around.