Power  /  Antecedent

Helping Latino Kids Succeed in the Classroom Doesn’t Have to be an Ideological War

Conservatives backed bilingual education until it became a progressive cause.
First grade teacher instructing Spanish pronunciation in Texas.
Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images

Of the more than 50 million children who return to school this month — Hispanic Heritage Month — fewer than half are white and more than 25 percent are Latino. Of the approximately 10 percent of those children who are English language learners, nearly 80 percent speak Spanish. Despite, or perhaps because of, these demographics, many Latino children understandably fear a hostile educational atmosphere this fall, nine months into a presidency rooted in decrying Mexican criminals, clamoring for a border wall and, most recently, erratically pivoting on a policy that protects the most vulnerable undocumented Latinos from deportation.

President Trump’s anti-Latino rhetoric might be uniquely strident, but it builds on nearly 40 years of Republican efforts to preserve Anglo supremacy by rolling back Latino cultural and linguistic influence in the classroom. From calls for English to be the nation’s official language of instruction to the Arizona GOP’s ban on ethnic studies in 2010, the party’s anti-Latino agenda has been decades in the making.

And yet, in a not-too distant past, Republicans were committed supporters of bilingual-bicultural education for the Latino population that grew rapidly after the 1965 Immigration Act.

If today’s teenage jingoists scream “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!” to heckle Latinos at high school sporting events, public schools 50 years ago suggested a more promising future: one in which conservatives worked alongside liberals to secure educational access for native-born and immigrant Latino children whose dignity was assumed.

This lost past serves as a useful reminder that today’s polarization is not preordained, and that pursuing policies that persecute Latinos is hardly a conservative article of faith. On the contrary, until Spanish bilingual-bicultural education advocacy became intimately intertwined with the progressive political movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, conservatives often actively supported measures intended to solve the oft-cited problem that more than 50 percent of Spanish-speaking children dropped out of school by the eighth grade.

During the 1960s, conservative policymakers wrestled earnestly with “the Mexican-American problem,” as the low rate of educational attainment among Latinos was often described. As governor in 1967, Ronald Reagan abolished a nearly century-old statute requiring English instruction in California schools, earning criticism that “with one stroke of his pen” he had created “the Mexican-American” who resisted assimilation.

And then there was the arch-conservative Max Rafferty. If that name rings a bell in 2017, it’s likely thanks to his syndicated columns and books that floridly described his battle to “kill progressive education” as California state superintendent, steering schools through what he styled the moral wasteland of “the Sick Sixties.”

Yet in the mid-1960s, Rafferty established professional development conferences on the “Education of the Mexican-American,” even meeting with the Mexican Minister of Education to contemplate teacher and textbook exchanges. Sounding a more inclusive note than many of his contemporaries, Rafferty spurned “total assimilation” and proclaimed that “bilingualism is important for everyone — not only for the Mexican-American student who must learn English along with his Spanish, but also for his Anglo counterpart who should learn Spanish.”

Rafferty went further: He hired the highest-ranking Mexican American in the California state bureaucracy at the time, Deputy Superintendent Eugene Gonzales. Gonzales was on the front lines of developing and implementing bilingual-bicultural educational policies primarily directed at Mexican Americans. He partnered with moderate Republicans, such as Leon Panetta (who later became a prominent Democrat) and Senator Thomas Kuchel, who were similarly passionate about enforcing civil rights protections for African Americans and Latinos.

Innovative as bilingual-bicultural education programs were in this era, many of these programs were also deeply assimilationist. As one program mission announced, Spanish would only be used to “effect a natural and effective fusion with the school and the American heritage it perpetuates.” The most widespread English as a Second Language (ESL) approach involved no effort to maintain the native language or culture. Radically progressive programs that taught Spanish and celebrated Mexican-American culture rarely gained sustained support from liberals or conservatives.

Yet bipartisan support for even this basic appreciation of the value of the Spanish language and Latino culture to school and society was fleeting.

What happened? In short, 1968. On the first business day of the year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal Bilingual Education Act into law. The first federal recognition of linguistic minorities, it was a watershed for Latino advocates who had been laboring at the district, city and state levels.

But since the act was sparsely funded and philosophically moderate, the victory was largely symbolic. Conservatives, increasingly vocal about their disgust with what they perceived as the overreach of the Great Society, now associated bilingual education with a big federal government that spent lavishly on programs that benefited minorities.

Weeks later, hundreds of high school students walked out of their East Los Angeles high schools, protesting the lack of bilingual education, the tiny number of minority administrators and prejudice toward Latino and black students. Holding signs declaring “Viva la Revolución!” these politicized teenagers amazed bystanders. “This is BC and AD. You know the schools will not be the same hereafter,” the superintendent told another onlooker. Sure enough, Latino advocates for educational justice united their struggle with the growing antiwar and Black Power movements.

To conservative bystanders, this was a disastrous turn — and a dealbreaker. Rafferty decried the walkouts as “the easy and lazy way out” and grumbled about disciplining the unruly students with a “hickory stick.” Gonzales was perhaps more conflicted, because he had spent months visiting college and high school campuses rallying support for new Mexican-American educational programs that exploded the stereotype of the “do-nothing attitude” of the “mythical tortilla eater.” After the blowouts, he changed his tone, beseeching Latino student groups to temper theirs, arguing “it’s no longer necessary to hit the schools with a 2×4 for attention.”

In a few heated months, the delicate bipartisan consensus on Spanish bilingual-bicultural education was in tatters. Supported by big-government liberals and grass-roots radicals, bilingual-bicultural education policies became inimical to conservatives. After losing the 1971 state superintendent race to African-American liberal Wilson Riles, Rafferty took a job at Alabama’s Troy State University — which he considered an oasis of “law and order” amid college campuses engulfed in radicalism — where segregationist George Wallace warmly welcomed him. The same year, Reagan was skewered in Chicano publications for slashing budgets that funded bilingual education. By 1997, even Gonzales had resolved his ambivalence, speaking out in favor of English-only Proposition 227.

Save strategic efforts — such as President Richard Nixon’s bilingual education advocacy intended to prove to Latino voters his commitment to more than “warmed over black programs,” as historian Gareth Davies described — the fight for Latino educational rights became a progressive cause. By the early 1980s, an emboldened New Right largely defined the Spanish language, and the (especially immigrant) Latinos who spoke it, as dangerous to American culture and coffers.

Since the mid-1960s, not only has Spanish bilingual-bicultural education become starkly politicized, it’s also become a pressing national concern. When Rafferty and Gonzales grappled with Mexican-American education — what Rafferty called California schools’ “largest and most complex” problem — they largely considered it a southwestern issue.

But today, President Trump operates in a changed demographic and cultural landscape in which Latinos are nationally prominent and geographically far-flung — and thus stand squarely in the crosshairs of conservatives who fear the national culture and economy is under threat. If public school classrooms have of late been sites of anti-Latino racism, history teaches us that they might also be our last best hope for common ground.