6 1/2 weeks before vote, English initiative is way ahead

Prop. 227 foes intensify uphill struggle

Opponents of a June ballot measure requiring English instruction in public schools said Thursday they are stepping up their campaign in hopes of chiseling away at the strong public support for ending bilingual education.

The campaign to defeat Proposition 227 staged a series of coordinated news conferences around the state Thursday to highlight what it said are the measure’s weak points, including lack of local district control over educational decisions and the measure’s emphasis on English-only instruction.

“There’s no evidence that this blanket approach will improve the education of non-native English-speaking students,” parent Vicki Capestany said.

The news conferences, including one at San Jose’s Horace Mann Academy,
followed by a day the release of a poll showing that Proposition 227 continues to enjoy strong support among voters.

The poll, released by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that 76 percent of voters support the ballot measure and 20 percent oppose it. Other voter surveys have confirmed that support, which appears to cut across political and ethnic lines.

But in a sign that voters are “conflicted,” the institute also found that most voters, 55 percent, would favor leaving decisions about bilingual education to local school districts.

The survey of 2,002 California residents was conducted April 1-8. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Local opponents hope to chip away at the support with phone banks, targeted mailings and “lots of grass-roots organizing,” said Maria Ferrer,
a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

Conceived by Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz, Proposition 227 would amend the state Education Code to “require that all children be placed in English language classrooms.” This probably would curtail or eliminate the use of the various types of bilingual classrooms, in which students are educated in their home language until they learn English.

Under the initiative, students not fluent in English would spend about a year in “structured English immersion” classrooms, which would be designed to help them learn English. They would then move into regular English-language classes.

Unz drafted his measure in response to what he calls the “dismal failure” of bilingual education at educating students and making them fluent in English.

But opponents of the measure said Thursday that Unz’s solution would outlaw effective educational programs and do nothing to improve the plight of non-English-speaking students. By prescribing English instruction for nearly all public school classrooms, opponents said, it would rob parents and teachers of educational choice.

“I deserve the right to decide at the local level which program is the best educationally for these children,” Ferrer said.

Proposition 227 offers parents three types of exemptions if they want bilingual instruction. But opponents said the process offers no guarantees and creates a bureaucratic burden for parents.

“I see that as a way of parents’ losing control over the child,”
Ferrer said.

With less than seven weeks left before the election, both sides have been touting their endorsements. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican, endorsed Proposition 227 late last week, saying bilingual education is “an experiment that has failed our children.”

On the other side, the opposition snagged the support of the Santa Ana school board, a key symbolic coup for the campaign. Santa Ana is the school district that employs Gloria Matta Tuchman, the elementary school teacher who is co-chairing the Proposition 227 campaign.

“She obviously couldn’t convince her colleagues to support this unproven method developed by her and Ron Unz,” Capestany said of Tuchman,
who instructs her students mostly in English.

But Proposition 227 spokeswoman Sherri Annis said the vote by the Santa Ana board was no surprise.

“I would make a distinction between a teacher supporting the initiative vs. a whole school district taking a position,” Annis said. “Most districts have entrenched bilingual programs, so it’s no surprise they would come out against it.”

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