SACRAMENTO — While academics, educators and political consultants debate the merits of bilingual education in Sacramento, a new statewide poll is showing that voters continue strongly to support a June ballot measure that would radically overhaul the way California teaches its non-English speaking students.

The state Board of Education found wide disagreement during a special hearing Monday devoted entirely to bilingual education. But voters appear to have made up their minds on the issue, with 64 percent of poll respondents supporting an initiative that would scrap the state’s bilingual education system and require nearly all instruction in English. According to the Field Poll released today, 27 percent oppose the measure and 9 percent are undecided.

The poll results reflect a slight drop-off from the 69 percent of registered voters who supported the June ballot measure in an identical poll taken in December. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.8 percent.

“The support for the initiative remains strong, and we think it will remain strong through the end of the campaign,” said initiative spokeswoman Sherri Annis.

But while overall support was strong, the initiative’s popularity appeared to be slipping in the Latino community.

Among registered Latino voters, 47 percent said they support the initiative,
a sharp decline from the 66 percent who favored it in December. Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo cautioned that the Latino survey sample was small,
but he said the change in support between the two polls was still statistically significant.

Annis was disturbed by that aspect of the new poll. “The Latino numbers are troubling in that I wish the sample has been large enough to get an idea of what the feeling was,” she said.

Opponents of the initiative, co-sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, said they expect more slippage of support as people begin to examine the ballot measure more closely.

“Most dramatic is the way the Latino support has fallen below 50 percent,” said Kelly Hayes-Raitt, spokeswoman for the No on Unz campaign.
“Since the last poll, we’ve picked up support from such disparate groups as the PTA and the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, and I believe this is an indication of how flawed the Unz initiative is.”

If approved by the majority of voters in June, the initiative would bar most non-English classroom instruction. Students with little or no English skills would spend about a year in a “sheltered English immersion”
class to learn English and then be moved into a regular classroom. Parents could still request that their children be taught in their home language,
such as Spanish.

The ballot measure has become one of the most talked-about issues of the political season. The state education panel set aside an entire day to sift through the complex issue, inviting academics with widely different viewpoints and representatives from each side of the campaign to testify.

The hearing shed little new light on the often-confusing debate over how best to work with students who lack a good grasp of English. Most of the academics agreed that not enough useful research had been completed on the effectiveness of various teaching strategies.

But Christine Rossell, a professor at Boston University, said her research has concluded that teaching students in their home language first before moving them into English classes does not offer any advantages over regular English instruction.

Rossell, one of the few academics in the country vocally opposed to bilingual education, said she prefers the structured English-immersion approach similar to that called for in the Unz initiative.

“Structured English immersion is better,” Rossell said. “It’s not hugely better, which is why I’m not saying bilingual education is a disaster. But it’s better.”

But Professor Diane Codero de Noriega, of California State University-Sacramento,
advocated providing at least some instruction in a student’s native language.
“Common sense tells me that students need the assurance of someone who speaks their language and can put their concerns at ease,” she said.

Despite their disagreements, both sides agreed that public schools should be free to use whatever instruction they find that works best with their students. The state currently encourages school districts to educate non-English speaking students in their home language, although no law requires such instruction.

“We don’t have definitive data to say we should go this way or that,”
said Eugene Garcia, dean of the school of education at the University of California-Berkeley. “What we should be saying is we want English language development and academic achievement, and districts should do what they need to do to achieve that.”

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