Defenders of bilingual education paid a raucous visit to the home turf of their arch rival Tuesday, marching in front of the software firm owned by Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz.
Unz is the co-author of a June ballot initiative aimed at all but dismantling the state’s bilingual education system.
Toting signs and banners and chanting anti-Unz slogans, the demonstrators vowed to defeat the initiative, which they said would humiliate students by forcing them into English-only classrooms where they wouldn’t be able to communicate.
The rally offered a preview of how the bilingual education debate might unfold during the next several months as immigrant-rights groups and Latino organizations mount their campaigns against the initiative.
“This man thinks he has us under his feet,” said Renee Saucedo,
executive director of the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights,
which organized the rally. “But he doesn’t understand how powerful we are. We will defeat him.”
Unz said earlier in the day that he did not plan to be around for the late-afternoon protest, and he predicted a light turnout. But the event attracted 200 to 300 demonstrators from all over Northern California.
Julia Ramirez drove to the rally, off East Bayshore Road near Highway 101, from Modesto.
“I went through a system of non-bilingual education,” said Ramirez, whose native language is Spanish. “It didn’t help me become a better citizen. The first three children in our family ended up with a very poor education. I had to make up the difference after the system failed me.”
Unlike Ramirez, Vicky Capestany does not have first-hand experience with bilingual education. But the San Jose State University graduate student said the initiative is the wrong way to deal with bilingual education, which has been criticized as a failed teaching strategy.
“If he has concerns, it would be more productive for him to look at how to fix it,” Capestany said, marching in circles on the front steps of Unz’s firm, Wall Street Analytics. “To just eliminate is to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Unz has pointed to recent polls as evidence of the strong support he has from immigrants and Latinos, groups that stand to be the most affected by his initiative.
“Most immigrants seem to be very eager to have the right to learn English,” Unz said Tuesday. “It seems to me immigrant-rights groups should be working to expand immigrants’ rights rather than contract them.”
But Saucedo said the polls are misleading. Though many Latinos are eager for their children to learn English as quickly as possible, that does not mean they want to forgo the initial support offered by bilingual education,
More importantly, Saucedo said, parents want to be able to choose how their children are educated. With few exceptions, the Unz initiative requires English instruction for all students.
“This group represents a growing understanding of what the Unz initiative is all about,” Saucedo said. “It shuts out parent choice.”
With the election still more than five months away, Unz’s initiative already has attracted a lot of attention. Last week, the state PTA announced its opposition to the ballot measure, saying it would deny school boards
“any option on how to best serve the linguistic and academic needs of their English-language learners.”
At the same time, some California school districts have started to dismantle their bilingual education programs, saying they have not served their purpose.
Last week, the Santa Barbara school board voted unanimously to seek a waiver of the state’s bilingual education policy from the state Board of Education. The state has granted waivers to four other districts, all in Orange County.