LOS ANGELES—Opponents call it a wedge, another way to divide Californians along ethnic and immigrant lines. The Clinton administration has called it a “major mistake.”

But the push to dismantle bilingual education statewide has broad appeal among parents whose children must learn to speak English at school. They say the ballot initiative known as Proposition 227 is not about race, but about reading and writing in the language of the United States.

“People will say it’s a racial issue, but that’s misinforming or misleading the people,” said Westminster Councilman Tony Lam, a Vietnamese immigrant and father of six who lives in Orange County. “I feel it’s an issue about the children. The public school is where we should prepare them to master English.”

Even before Lam joined a prominent group of Asian-American leaders in endorsing Proposition 227 earlier this month, support among Asians was overwhelming. In a mid-March survey by the Field Poll in San Francisco, Asians backed the measure 6-1, more than any other group. Sixty-one percent of Hispanic voters and 63 percent of black voters indicated they would vote for it. More recently, a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, also in San Francisco, showed that 76 percent of all voters supported the initiative.

Those percentages are expected to fall off – perhaps sharply – by the time of the June 2 vote, pollsters said, because support for ballot initiatives typically starts high and fewer than half of the measures actually pass. Still, they added that the numbers are high enough to suggest passage, although participants in focus groups have shown little familiarity with the specifics of bilingual education in California.

“What voters are endorsing is teaching kids in English, but they don’t really believe they’ve heard the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides yet.” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “They’re very high on the concept of it, but we’ll have to see. This is just a point on the continuum.”

The Proposition 227 movement, spearheaded by a group of Hispanic parents in Los Angeles and now led by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, argues that the practice of teaching young children in their own language has failed. They want to see it replaced with a year of intensive instruction in English. With few exceptions, the children would then be moved into regular classes – an “immersion” method that Governor Pete Wilson this week said he is inclined to support.

“The base support is so strong because it’s so ingrained in people’s minds that the current system is nuts,” said Sherri Annis, spokeswoman for English for the Children, the group led by Unz. “Californians recognize that the state legislature has been inactive for so many years on this issue and that no politician has had the conviction and the support to change the current system.”

But critics – including President Clinton and the US Department of Education
– counter that immersion would traumatize schoolchildren, and that ending bilingual education would leave them without the skills necessary to navigate the job market after high school graduation. Instead, some critics favor a bill that would let California school districts decide how best to teach English to immigrant children.

“The truth is everyone has the same goal: To teach kids English as quickly as possible,” said Richard Zeiger, spokesman for California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, a staunch Proposition 227 opponent whose wife is a bilingual education teacher. “On the surface, it’s easy to believe that’s what it will do. But it takes a sort of one-size-fits-all approach, which will hurt a lot of the kids who don’t fit.”

Jim Schultz, executive director of the Democracy Center in San Francisco and the father of two children adopted in Bolivia, said the measure “makes me nuts as a parent” because it eliminates the ability to choose bilingual easily.

Under the proposed initiative, children must spend the first 30 days of each school year in standard classrooms and then receive approval to transfer back into bilingual classes. As a result, critics say many students will be stuck in English-speaking classrooms unsuited for them. When Hispanic parents realize that, Schultz said, their support for Proposition 227 will decline dramatically.

“Why is the Latino and Asian vote where it is? Because there is an emotional reaction based on real experiences in classrooms,” said Schultz, whose nonprofit group trains community groups to get involved in politics. “But what’s happening at a political level is that the kids and parents have gotten trapped between the arrogance of both sides.”

About 1.4 million schoolchildren are classified as limited in English proficiency – 25 percent of the total – and California spends more than $ 330 million a year educating them. Of those, 420,000 are taught exclusively in their native language.

Initiative supporters cite statistics showing that just 5 percent of students in bilingual programs are found to be proficient in English each year. Opponents, however, say those figures are misleading because they include students in enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes and students just entering bilingual programs.

High school teacher Richard Monroe, a supporter of Proposition 227, said that he can immediately spot which students were immersed in English early and which were allowed to spend as long as seven years in bilingual programs.

In his bilingual classes in Arvin, Calif., about 100 miles from Los Angeles, Monroe said the mostly Hispanic teenage students often insist on being taught in English. For instance, many students declined his offer to speak Spanish in his history class, where tests are given in English.

“Overwhelmingly, the students said, ‘No, Mr. Monroe, how can we learn English if we don’t study English?’ ” said Monroe, who has a master’s degree in Spanish. “The sooner kids learn English, the sooner they are going to learn, and they know it.”

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