PLEASANT HILL — The debate over how to teach English to California’s immigrant children came to Contra Costa County Wednesday night, with Proposition 227 co-author Ron Unz squaring off in a public forum against the chief spokeswoman for the opposition to the ballot measure.
Unz and Holli Thier repeated the arguments they have made in newspapers,
on radio talk shows and in debates throughout the state since Unz launched his initiative drive last fall. Unz emphasized the failures of the current bilingual education system, while Thier called his plan an educational straitjacket that would remove decision-making from local school districts.
Prop. 227 would place all limited-English students into one-year immersion programs designed to teach them English. After that, they would be placed in mainstream English-language classrooms.
Fifteen minutes into the forum, a dozen young people from C-Beyond, a Concord-based group of young activists, rose from their seats and stood silently, temporarily halting the discussion. When several refused to sit down, they were escorted from the room by security guards.
Young people are united against Prop. 227, said Lenore Anderson, C-Beyond coordinator. “We’ve already made up our minds and we didn’t need to wait to ask questions. We wanted to let Ron Unz know what we thought.”
More than 250 people nearly filled the multipurporse room at the Pleasant Hill Education Center for the forum, which was televised live. Because of the television coverage, the audience was asked to refrain from cheering or jeering, but some people in attendance could not restrain themselves.
Unz said he has participated in almost 200 forums and debates since he proposed the ballot measure. In public forums such as this, he said, the audience is invariably hostile; on the other hand, he said, callers to radio talk shows tend to support him by the 10-1 margin.
About one-third of California’s limited-English students are enrolled in bilingual classes, in which most of the teaching takes place in the students’
native languages; most of the rest are taught either in sheltered classes,
in which the teachers speak a slow and clearly enunciated English, or in mainstream classes with extra help. Federal law mandates that school districts provide assistance to students learning English.
Thier said the sheltered immersion prescribed in the ballot measure is too unproven to impose on all California school districts. She objected to the one-year time limit as arbitrary and inadequate for many English learners.
At Wednesday’s debate, Thier emphasized the local control issue. She also stressed that the ballot measure calls for the expenditure of $50 million over 10 years to pay for programs to teach English to adults who pledge to tutor immigrant children; the money would come out of general school funds, and probably would require a bureaucracy for insuring that the adults kept their promise to tutor.
Meanwhile, Unz started by pointing out the failures of bilingual education
— the low standardized test scores and high drop-out rate among Latinos,
and the fact that only 5 percent of California’s limited-English school children are reclassified as proficient in any given year.
So far, Unz’s message has appealed to prospective voters. In opinion polls, Prop. 227 is favored by a 2-1 margin, cutting across all ethnic groups.
Unz is particularly proud of the support for the initiative from the Latino community, which he believes has been most handicapped by bilingual programs.
Unz, a Silicon Valley electronics entrepreneur with no formal background in education theory, ran against Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary; he emphasizes his opposition to Proposition 187, which would have withheld social services to illegal immigrants. He wrote the Prop. 227 ballot measure with Gloria Matta Tuchman, an Orange County first-grade teacher who is running for state superintendent of public instruction. Tuchman’s Santa Ana classroom is the model for the program proposed in Prop. 227.
Prop. 227 opponents often raise questions about the political ambitions and motivations of Unz and Tuchman. The No on Unz forces have yet to spend any of their estimated $2 million war chest, and they believe public opinion will turn around once voters understand Prop. 227 more fully.
Wednesday night’s forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Contra Costa Newspapers. Dr. Thomas Scovel, a professor of psycholinguistics at San Francisco State University and a specialist in second-language learning,
provided background information on the issues discussed by Unz and Thier.