A wealthy former Republican candidate for governor, Ron Unz, is pushing an initiative for the June 1998 ballot that would end most bilingual education in California schools.
The initiative creates the potential for the third racially divisive ballot measure in as many election years — following Proposition 187 to withhold services from illegal immigrants in 1994 and Proposition 209 to ban affirmative action last year.
Unz has enlisted a Latina co-sponsor, Gloria Matta Tuchman of Santa Ana,
and has included a provision in the initiative that would pump an additional
$50 million a year into adult English-language instruction.
Unz, who received 34 percent of the vote in his 1994 primary race against Gov. Pete Wilson, said many Latinos are concerned that bilingual education is slowing the learning of English.
“As liberals and Democrats start getting involved, I think it will become clear that we are talking about a unifying not a divisive issue,”
said Unz, a resident of Palo Alto, and founder of a computer software firm.
But state GOP chairman Michael Schroeder, who personally opposes bilingual education, said he fears that the initiative will raise another controversy as the party tries to broaden its base by reaching out to minorities.
“The Democrats will certainly run out there and say this is just another example of Hispanic-bashing and that they hate people who speak Spanish,” said Schroeder. “It’s not true. It’s not a party-sponsored initiative.”
An attorney for the Mexican-Attorney Legal Defense and Educational Fund said it’s not clear yet whether the issue of bilingual education will stir passions like the initiatives on illegal immigration and affirmative action,
both of which have been at least temporarily blocked in court.
“It’s really early,” said Thomas Saenz, a MALDEF attorney.
“It’s another one of those propositions subject to a great deal of confusion, and it’s not something that people have had a great deal of information about.”
However, Saenz said, he is concerned that the Unz initiative requires instruction in English, eliminating other options. He also said that Tuchman was connected in the past with U.S. English, a group whose founder made controversial statements about limiting Latino immigration.
“That suggests to me there is something else going on here other than perhaps the best educational interest of the students,” said Saenz.
Unz said Tuchman was named woman of the year by the League of United Latin American Citizens. He said he was prompted to sponsor the initiative by a report last year of Latino parents in Los Angeles protesting the failure of bilingual education.
“There is a significant number of children in California who have been in the public school system for a number of years, starting in kindergarten,
who still do not speak English,” said Unz, who plans to help finance the initiative drive but is looking for additional financial support.
Last year, only 6.5 percent of the students in bilingual education made the transition into regular English-speaking classes, according to the state Department of Education.
Unz said the initiative requires that students be taught in English,
unless the parents request otherwise. Currently, students with limited English proficiency, 1.3 million or 23 percent of all California students, are eligible to receive bilingual education in their native language.
Unz said the initiative calls for “sheltered English immersion”
instruction from teachers trained to handle students who do not speak English.
He said the teachers use English, supplemented by pictures and gestures.
While federal courts have blocked other initiatives, Unz said he is confident there is no constitutional basis for requiring bilingual education.
The state law authorizing bilingual education expired in 1987. The program continues to operate under old guidelines, having received $318 million in state funds last year.
Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, said her attempts to reauthorize a reformed program have been blocked for the last three years by both the supporters and opponents of bilingual education.
“Both groups object to this more moderate approach, which calls for more accountability and flexibility,” said Alpert.
Unz said his initiative will break the legislative deadlock. He said he plans to put the initiative on the June ballot next year to avoid creating a partisan issue in the November election.
The initiative was submitted to the attorney general last month. Unz said he hopes to receive authorization to begin gathering signatures by July 1.