More than 12,000 teachers began descending on San Jose on Wednesday for the annual California Association for Bilingual Education conference, their minds as much on politics as education.
The official conference theme is education and technology, but the buzz on the first day revolved around the June ballot initiative that Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz has drafted to dismantle the state’s bilingual-education system.
With speeches, campaign booths and handouts, Unz critics urged teachers and administrators to help fight the ballot measure that is aimed directly at their jobs.
“The atmosphere is definitely different this year,” said Alicia Saballa-Santana, a vice principal in the Lindsay Unified School District,
south of Fresno. “There’s a real sense of urgency” to unite against the initiative.
The conference is the largest gathering of the year of bilingual-education teachers. The group will spend most of four days in hundreds of workshops and visiting South Bay schools, learning strategies for teaching students whose first language is not English.
On the first day, though, the keynote speeches were just as suited for campaign rallies as an education conference. “No On Unz” booths were placed strategically throughout the San Jose Convention Center.
“We must keep in mind that CABE ’98 takes place in a time of tremendous political and educational policy change,” said Josefina Villamil Tinajero,
president of the National Association for Bilingual Education, during a welcoming speech. “I need say only two words to describe our challenge:
Unz’s initiative would mostly ban non-English instruction in California schools. Students who know little or no English would be placed in a “sheltered English immersion” class for one year and then transferred into a regular English classroom.
That approach offends the sensibilities of most CABE conference attendees,
who usually prefer to ease students into English fluency by educating them in their home language first.
“It will be an evil day if this initiative succeeds,” Tinajero said. “The mother tongue of our children must not be muted, be silenced.
. . . It must be preserved, even as they learn English.”
Unz, a Republican candidate for governor in 1994, considers bilingual education a “dismal failure.” The software businessman has eschewed most academic studies supporting the approach, saying he has plenty of real-world anecdotes that speak to its failure.
So far, his message appears to be resonating with voters, with early polls showing support as high as 70 percent.
“I really think our initiative proposes policy that is reasonable and straightforward, and I think it will have strong support,” Unz said this week. “Bilingual education just doesn’t work.”
Although Unz has vowed to run a frugal campaign, bilingual-education supporters have fretted about his ability to tap a large personal fortune,
if necessary, to bankroll his campaign.
Even Richie Ross, the Sacramento consultant running the “No On Unz”
campaign, acknowledged his uphill battle during a short speech at the CABE conference.
“The bad news is 5 million people will vote June 2, and 85 percent of them don’t have a child in school,” Ross told a convention hall of teachers. “What I’m going to ask you to do is help me by becoming politically bilingual. We need to educate millions of people about what’s wrong with the Unz initiative, and we need to do it in a language they understand.”
Despite its underdog status, the No on Unz campaign is starting to line up important political support.
The California Teachers Association last week committed $750,000 to the campaign, CTA vice president Wayne Johnson said, and the 200,000-member union may kick in more if necessary.
CABE has donated $50,000, campaign spokeswoman Kelly Hayes-Raitt said.
And the group is hoping to raise another $3 million by cobbling together
$500 donations from 6,000 members, she said.
“This is the biggest opportunity to speak to the majority of bilingual education teachers,” Hayes-Raitt said. “These are the people who know best.”
Although the Unz initiative is new, questions about bilingual education are not, veteran teachers said Wednesday.
“We’re used to a lot of controversy in our position,” said Nelva Leavitt, who works in the bilingual education office at the Oakland Unified School District. “We’re used to having to defend that what we’re doing is right. There is a large group of people who don’t understand bilingual education teachers and what we’re about.”
Mirtha Ortiz, a first-grade teacher at Natividad Elementary in Salinas,
said she often faces criticism from the non-bilingual teachers at her own school.
“I think it’s important to educate the other teachers,” Ortiz said. “They don’t understand.”