SAN FRANCISCO—A strange thing happened when Fernando Vega stuck three signs in his front yard.
The signs read Ingles Para Los Ninos – English for the children – in support of a contentious California ballot initiative seeking to halt bilingual
education, which teaches children in their native languages. But the placards proved a lure to some of the very people thought to be most supportive of bilingual education – Spanish-speaking parents hoping to help their children.
They came knocking on his door.
“Senor, what do you have to do to get into your school?” they asked. “The schools don’t teach my children English.”
Vega, a retired airline mechanic and former school board member in Redwood City, says the parents’ misplaced enthusiasm only boosted his passion to dismantle the bilingual education system he had fought to build in the late 1960s.
“It was supposed to be about kids learning English, overcoming language barriers,” said Vega, now honorary chairman of the “English for the Children” movement. “That’s not happening anymore.”
The initiative would require public school pupils to be taught in English, except when parents specifically ask for bilingual help. Children who come to school speaking little or no English would spend their first year in “a sheltered English immersion class,” as described by initiative author Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software executive and onetime candidate for governor.
Early polls, including one by the San Francisco-based Field Institute, show the June 2 ballot initiative is backed by more than two-thirds of voters, whether they question all voters or specifically Hispanics. It also has gained support from at least one high-profile Hispanic educator, Jaime Escalante, the tough-talking teacher depicted in the movie Stand and Deliver.
The biggest problem, many say, is the number of students who graduate from the dual-language program. The idea is to keep the children from falling behind in core subjects while teaching them English. But last year, only 6.7 percent of California’s 1.4 million “limited English proficient” students earned “proficient” status.
Although that percentage is slightly higher than in recent years, even supportive educators concede at least 10 percent of the non-English-speaking students should move on to proficient levels each year. They say the system falters under a constant flow of new immigrants and a chronic shortage of native-language teachers.
Bilingual education programs exist nationwide, with particular concentrations of non-English-speaking children in Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.
But California’s public schools account for more than half of the almost 2.44 million non-fluent students nationwide. Those 1.4 million California students, fully one-quarter of the state’s public school enrollment, are predominantly Spanish-speaking.
Because of a shortage of teachers and textbooks, only about 30 percent of the children who need language help get core subjects – math, science and social studies – taught to them in their native languages. Mostly, that’s Spanish, although some youngsters get at least some lessons in languages such as Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
Unz has spent more than $ 300,000 of his own money on “English for the Children.”Critics question why a single man with no children, a computer millionaire who lives in the rarefied environs of Palo Alto, has such an interest in the education of immigrant children. He simply shrugs.
“I don’t see why it’s controversial to teach little children English,” Unz says.
Yet some immigrant parents approve of bilingual education and fiercely oppose its erosion.
Two weeks ago, Hispanic parents kept 379 students out of Santa Barbara elementary schools for three days to protest the school board’s unanimous decision to halt bilingual education. About 600 people attended a raucous school board meeting, with at least 100 speaking.