LOS ANGELES – Eyes welled up in the cramped office at Noble Avenue Elementary School, where a small group of teachers and administrators had gathered to discuss bilingual education – an emotional subject here in any language.
There was a sense among the Noble Avenue staffers that their classroom specialty may soon be erased at the ballot box. All are devoted practitioners of bilingual instruction, a staple of California schools for the last 25 years.
“It’s scary,” said Priscilla Becerra, her voice trembling. She teaches her split class of first- and second-graders entirely in Spanish, except for about 90 minutes of daily lessons in English.
About three-quarters of Noble Avenue’s students are in bilingual courses. “I’m very upset about it.”
What frightens Ms. Becerra and her colleagues is a measure that would dismantle most of the state’s bilingual program, which includes 1.3 million students, 23 percent of California’s enrollment. The initiative, dubbed “English for the Children,” is expected to be on a June ballot.
Early forecasts by political professionals give the measure a good chance of winning, perhaps with significant support from Latinos. If that happens, the initiative’s sponsors say, it could trigger a nationwide reassessment of bilingual education, especially in other heavily Hispanic states.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 3 million students, or 7 percent of the 52 million public school students nationwide, receive some bilingual instruction. In Texas, about 514,000 of 3.7 million students qualify for bilingual programs similar to those in California.
“It’s a very popular issue,” said Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire and former gubernatorial candidate who is bankrolling the initiative. “Bilingual education just doesn’t work.”
At a glance, the measure may appear to draw the lines for California’s third ethnically divisive election battle in as many years. The state has yet to shake the after-effects of two voter-approved initiatives – Propositions 187 and 209 – that denied some public services to illegal immigrants and ended affirmative-action preferences in government hiring and university admissions, respectively. Both remain targets of court challenges.
Hispanic organizations like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund have denounced the measure as another vehicle for immigrant-bashing. Two prominent Latino politicians, state Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante and Assembly Majority Leader Antonio Villaraigosa, have also spoken against it.
Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the Claremont Colleges, said that if more Hispanic elected officials oppose the measure, large blocs of Latino voters may follow.
To date, however, many Latino office-holders have either been silent on the measure or offered only muted criticism of it. In the meantime, a recent Los Angeles Times poll found that 84 percent of the state’s Latino electorate, and 80 percent of voters overall, favor the initiative.
Those numbers send chills through the halls of Noble Avenue, which is on the front lines of the Los Angeles school district’s bilingual program, the state’s largest by far. The school serves an economically distressed neighborhood of Mexican and Central American immigrants in the San Fernando Valley’s Sepulveda area.
In Noble Avenue’s lower grades, the textbooks, the tests and all but a few of the words on the bulletin boards are in Spanish.
The school’s teachers and administrators say, however, the children are getting a solid foundation in the three R’s – and thus will have an easier time mastering English later on.
“It takes five to seven years to learn another language – and I mean really learn it,” said Carolyn Daniels, the school’s bilingual coordinator.
Noble Avenue parent Guadalupe Perez, a Spanish speaker who has three children in the school, said she is grateful for the bilingual program because “some kids just don’t understand in English.”
“Kids speak Spanish at home, so it’s good for them to learn in Spanish at school,” said Ms. Perez, who added that bilingual instruction enables her to supervise her children’s homework.
Ecuadorean-born Ms. Becerra, 34, an effervescent instructor whose first- and second-graders dote on her every gesture, led her charges – ponytailed girls and scrubbed-faced boys – through a read-aloud Spanish primer. She peppered them with questions and rewarded each response with lavish praise.
Afterward, in the administration office, Ms. Becerra and three of her co-workers discussed the bilingual initiative. The sunny enthusiasm they displayed in their classrooms gave way to foreboding. A couple of them blinked back tears. There was grim agreement that the measure may prevail.
“Emotion,” said Maria Manzur, the school’s assistant principal, in summing up the bilingual debate. “It’s all based on emotion.”
Not so, say the initiative’s backers. They contend bilingual education defies common sense because young children naturally learn another language when steeped in it. In addition, the process ignores the example set by earlier waves of immigrants who conquered English without native-tongue instruction.
Proponents also assert that the program is kept alive because it brings state and federal money into the schools.
Hispanic youngsters from Spanish-speaking homes, on average, score well below state and national norms on the tests; their dropout rates exceed 40 percent in many school districts, officials said.
“I’m scared because my kids were born here, but they can only speak a little English,” said Jorge Duran, 34, a Mexican immigrant who has three young children in a bilingual school in Northern California’s Redwood City. Mr. Duran, a sanitation worker who spoke in a blend of Spanish and English, said the school resisted his entreaties to transfer his children to so-called English-immersion classes.
“The school brainwashed me a little bit, because they said it takes a long time to learn English,” he added. He and his wife support the initiative campaign.
The measure also has been embraced by a range of people who fought hard against Propositions 187 and 209, including Democrats and advocates for the poor. The school initiative, they say, is not part of any English-only movement.
Mr. Unz, a white, iconoclastic Republican who made his fortune in Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry, broke with his party to become a passionate opponent of 187.Mr. Unz’s campaign co-chair is a Latina teacher – Pecos, Texas-born Gloria Matta Tuchman – who has won awards for her work with Spanish-speaking pupils in Orange County.
“These children are being segregated and trapped by their own language,” said Ms. Tuchman, who teaches first grade at Santa Ana’s Taft Elementary. “You should teach English in English. Why is that such a revolutionary idea?”
Taft is one of a few California schools that has been experimenting with an alternative to bilingual instruction, substituting English-immersion classes for those once taught in Spanish. The students are among the Santa Ana district’s top performers in standardized tests, which Ms. Tuchman credits to the immersion approach.
The Rev. Alice Callaghan may be an unlikely soldier in the pro-initiative camp. The Episcopal priest is head of Las Familias del Pueblo, a charity that operates an after-school program on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Most of the Las Familias youngsters are immigrant children who attend Ninth Street Elementary School.
“We’ve seen children year after year graduating from Ninth Street reading at the second-grade level,” said Ms. Callaghan, who describes herself as a leftist. “This is a justice issue. Our parents don’t want their children working in sweatshops. They want them to go to college.”
Last year, Ms. Callaghan helped stage a weeklong boycott of the school by Spanish-speaking parents who complained that bilingual classes had short-changed their children.
The protest inspired Mr. Unz to write the initiative and spend $ 150,000 of his own money to gather signatures for a petition.
The measure would not eliminate bilingual education. Instead, it would provide “sheltered English” instruction for non-English-speaking children in their first year of school, then require them to move to an all-English class. In sheltered courses, students are taught in English and, when necessary, their home language.
Spanish is the primary language of more than 80 percent of California’s bilingual pupils; the rest speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Armenian, among many other languages. There are shortages of bilingual teachers for all of them.
The initiative permits parents whose children have not absorbed English by their second school year to request bilingual instruction until their skills improve.
Under the current regimen, students who test poorly on entry-level English are automatically assigned to bilingual classrooms. They stay there until they either test well enough to advance to all-English classes or are removed from the program at their parent’s request. The latter route is a paperwork-laden choice that parents rarely make.
The state’s goal calls for bilingual students to become proficient in English within five years. However, only about 5 percent of bilingual pupils are elevated to all-English classes each year. Students can remain in bilingual classes throughout elementary school and, in some cases, middle and high school.
“That’s a 95 percent failure rate,” said Mr. Unz. Bilingual adherents dispute that figure, saying it fails to account for new students who cannot be expected to learn English in one year.
The initiative forces maintain that California schools have clung to bilingual instruction because the program is a financial windfall. Schools get about $ 400 million in state and federal funds for bilingual education each year. Bilingual teachers are paid a $ 5,000 annual bonus for teaching in a second language. The funds also go toward non-English textbook purchases and university courses that train bilingual educators.
“Money, money, money – that’s what drives the bilingual program,” said Ms. Tuchman. “The longer you keep kids in the program, the more money the school district gets.”
The people who run the bilingual program say they resent such assertions. They defend bilingual education with the same fervor that their foes muster in attacking it. And just like their adversaries, they can cite numerous studies that lend credence to their position.
“Teach students English in one year?” said Norm Gold, who monitors bilingual programs for the state Department of Education.
“Absolutely impossible…You can’t do it.”