After taking on affirmative action and illegal immigrants, California voters soon may get a chance to tackle their next hot-button issue: bilingual education.

The decades-old controversy over how to educate immigrant schoolchildren is poised to become California’s next great debate, rivaling the fights over the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and last year’s Proposition 209, which aimed at ending affirmative action.

Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz’s “English for the Children” initiative banning bilingual instruction has just half the 433,269 signatures needed to qualify for the June 1998 ballot. But already politicians and special interest groups are scrambling to position themselves for what they expect to be a loud and heated argument.

At stake is a $370 million program that educates nearly 1.4 million schoolchildren whose first language is not English. But if past ballot measures are any indication, this could also become another mandate on race and the state’s uneasy relationship with its burgeoning immigrant population.

“The bottom line is, when you start talking about race and ethnicity,
it’s a potent combination,” political strategist Paul Maslin said.

To Unz, a former Republican candidate for governor, the issue is simple.
He considers the state’s bilingual education program a “dismal failure,”
churning out tens of thousands of students each year who cannot function in an English-language culture.

Unz wants nearly all school instruction to take place in English. Parents could request instruction in the student’s home language. But most non-English-speaking children would spend their first year in what Unz calls “sheltered English immersion,” where they would be taught in English at a much slower pace.

‘That’s discrimination’

Opponents such as Patricia Martinez-Roach, a San Jose bilingual teacher,
see the measure as an attack on minorities.

“It’s not comprehensible to me to force children to learn in a language they don’t understand,” said Roach, who teaches at Los Arboles School and serves on the East Side Union High School District board. “To me,
that’s discrimination.”

Initiative critics acknowledge the shortcomings of the current bilingual education system. But they say the theory behind it — that students should be transitioned into English language classes over several years while they study academic subjects in their home language — is sound. The system must be improved, not scrapped, they argue.

“This is all about Latinos. It’s another attack on the Latino community,”
said state Democratic Party chairman Art Torres. “Bilingual education has never been given a chance to work in California.”

But Unz says educators have had more than two decades to get bilingual instruction right. He cites data showing that just 5 percent of limited English-proficient students move into regular English language classes each year.

“I really don’t think I’ve ever evaluated a government program that has so little support,” Unz said.

So far, Unz’s initiative has been a political hot potato. Democrats do not want to appear to defend a failed program. At the same time, few liberal Democrats want to risk alienating constituents that support the program.

Republicans also have shied away from Unz’s measure, fearful it will be seen as another attack by angry white males on minorities.

That concern is based largely on the backlash from Proposition 187, which denied educational and medical benefits to illegal immigrants. The measure won handily at the polls. But it also roused the Latino electorate, pushing it into the arms of Democrats and costing Republicans several seats in the Legislature last fall.

Timing questioned

“There’s real value in discussing the issue (of bilingual education),
but there are still a lot of questions about the timing and experience of 209 and 187,” said Republican political strategist Sal Russo. “We’re going to be a little more careful this time.”

Latino Republicans are so worried about public perception that they are urging state party leaders not to take a stand on the Unz initiative at the annual GOP convention later this month, said Ernest Feliciano, president of the California chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

“I think everyone agrees — our children should be taught in English,”
Feliciano said. “But we believe this could be misconstrued as an anti-Hispanic issue. What we’re saying is, let’s not give the Democrats another club to beat us up with.”

Unz has gone out of his way to avoid the immigrant-bashing label. He points to his vocal opposition of Prop 187. And the initiative’s co-sponsor is a Latina, Santa Ana schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman.

In fact, the English-only movement has strong support among Latinos,
Unz argued.

Last year, dozens of Latino parents kept their kids out of the Ninth Street School in Los Angeles to protest its bilingual program.

And a 1996 national poll of urban Hispanic parents by the Washington,
D.C.-based Center for Equal Opportunity — on whose board Unz sits — found that 81 percent wanted their children taught in English.

Unz said he has circulated his petition widely in immigrant communities and that “90 percent of the people we talk to support what we’re trying to.”

But other signs point to strong support for the current system. When the Orange Unified School District decided to dismantle bilingual education this school year, hundreds of Latino parents protested and sued the district.

A March Los Angeles Times poll found that 77 percent of L.A. Latinos favor bilingual education. And statewide, 86.3 percent of registered Latino voters supported the concept, according to the Southwest Voters Research Institute 1996 California Latino Issues Poll.

Few organized opponents

“Every time we do a survey, (Latinos) want their children to learn English,” said Harry Pachon, head of the Tomas Rivera Policy Center in Claremont. “But when people find out that if the English-only initiatives are adopted, it will be sink-or-swim for their kids, you see a shift in the other direction.”

To date, there has been little organized opposition to Unz’s initiative.
But last month, representatives from nearly three dozen organizations –including school districts, and bilingual education, Latino and immigrant rights groups
— met to brainstorm ways to defeat the measure.

Organizers were reluctant to talk publicly about the meetings. But minutes suggest the groups are planning a wide-scale counter campaign costing as much as $1.5 million.

“There’s a huge amount of education that needs to be done about how bilingual education works and what’s good about it,” said Hedy Chang, co-director of the non-profit California Tomorrow, which organized the meeting. “I think it’s going to be a tough political fight.”

Maslin, the political consultant, said there is still a way to avoid the polarized and racially divisive debate that marked Prop. 187.

“If the Latinos and the progressive Democrats can say this is how to make bilingual education effectively work and suggest reforms,”
then maybe there can be more constructive discussion, Maslin said.

Moderates in the Legislature have been trying unsuccessfully to find common ground on the issue. Sen. Deirdre Alpert, D-Coronado, and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos, have written a bill that would let schools use almost any educational method with non-English speaking students, as long as they can prove it works.

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