The challenge bilingual educators face in fighting off attacks at the ballot box can be summed up in one word: Money.

That will be made clear at tonight’s closing ceremonies of a national bilingual education conference that has drawn about 7,000 participants to the Phoenix Civic Plaza. If all goes as planned, organizers will temporarily shut down the party until a significant number of members open up their checkbooks and contribute to a war chest.

The fund is being created to battle an anti-bilingual movement sweeping across the country, one that gained momentum after voters in California and then in Arizona passed ballot initiatives requiring public school districts to replace traditional bilingual education programs with a one-year crash course in English.

“Money is going to make a difference in this fight,” Susan Garcia, a board member of the National Association for Bilingual Education, said at a workshop focusing on developing a national framework for countering the anti-bilingual education movement.

Garcia, the parent of a bilingual education student in Aurora, Colo., helped set the battle tone as she waved a freshly written $100 check over her head while pleading with the 100 or so members who attended the workshop to “take out your checkbooks right now. Forget about the souvenirs you were going to buy.”

The workshop, one of several at the conference focusing on the growing anti-bilingual education movement, underscored the siege mentality the bilingual education establishment has developed since Ron Unz declared national war on the program.

Unz is a California software millionaire whose name has become synonymous with the anti-bilingual education wave after he bankrolled ballot initiatives to dismantle bilingual education in California and Arizona.

Unz has now set his sights on Colorado, where a similar ballot initiative headed for voters in November was derailed by bilingual education supporters in the courts. Bilingual education also has come under attack in New York City and Massachusetts.

“We won that battle, but the big battle is ahead of us because they are coming back,” said Sheila Shannon, a bilingual education professor at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Kathy Escamilla, who teaches bilingual education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, estimated it could take $2 million to wage an effective legal and public relations campaign to save the program in that state.

“How are we going to do that? I’m here to tell you I don’t know,” Escamilla said.

Bilingual education backers maintain that immigrant children learn best when their first language is used as a “bridge” while acquiring English. That prevents them from falling behind in other academic subjects, such as math and science, with the added benefit of maintaining the child’s first language.

Opponents say bilingual education is a failed program that prevents immigrant children from learning English and therefore limits their chances of success.

Luis Reyes, a professor of bilingual education at Brooklyn College in New York City, agreed that the program needs reform, noting that effective bilingual education models have suffered from a lack of resources and adequate teacher training.

But the ballot-box approach Unz and his allies have taken in their crusade has more to do with fear of immigration than helping immigrant children learn English, he said.

“He’s on a crusade of assimilation,” Reyes said. “He feeds into the insecurities of Middle America.”

Lacking a clear message to counter the characterization of bilingual education as being un-American, supporters were helpless from stopping the anti-bilingual initiative in California, said Shelley Spiegel-Coleman, a bilingual education teacher in Los Angeles.

The same fate awaits bilingual education programs in other states, unless proponents can develop a clear national message that convinces the public that bilingual education is not only educationally sound, but also good policy.

“I don’t think we have the message yet. It’s critical that we find one,” she said.

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