A brewing grassroots effort to recall Santa Ana school board member Nativo Lopez is a touchstone for a larger debate throughout the nation’s Latino population.

Mr. Lopez, a divisive political figure whose ethnic activist group is dogged by investigation and scandal, represents somewhat of a separatist viewpoint that has been gaining political ground. Essentially, Latino students are to be taught in Spanish, Latino residents are expected to think and vote alike, and activists such as Mr. Lopez serve as power brokers.

The alternative, traditional view is one in which Latinos are encouraged to assimilate into the broader society, with their children taught in English and a diversity of viewpoints encouraged.

The defining issue in this larger debate concerns bilingual education, the 1998 statewide ballot initiative that largely banned the teaching of public school students in their native language. As a school board member for California’s fifth-largest school district, Mr. Lopez has used his position to undermine Prop. 227.

As Gloria Matta Tuchman, the Prop. 227 co-author and Santa Ana teacher, explained in a recent Register column, “Following the passage of Prop. 227, we have … Lopez holding parent meetings at school sites, telling parents about the merits of bilingual education and convincing them to request parental waivers for this program.

Parents also are frustrated at the failures of the school system, including low test scores, overcrowded schools and large numbers of teachers without credentials. Ms. Tuchman is involved in the recall effort, and Ron Unz, the Sacramento-based sponsor of 227, was initially reluctant to support it, but now believes the effort has a good chance.

Mr. Lopez won his school board seat by a sliver of votes, even though he spent $150,000 on the race – far more than other candidates. According to the Los Angeles Times, he received funds by soliciting architects who had proposals before the school district. Mr. Lopez defended the practices.

So even though about 100 Santa Ana residents marched to support Mr. Lopez recently, his support might not be as deep as some people believe. Some Santa Ana residents appear disgusted by his race-baiting, especially when he criticized the ethnic background of a fellow board member.

Bilingual education has been a hot issue at the state level also. Gov. Gray Davis supported new regulations by his state school board appointees that would largely undermine Prop. 227. “I’m very encouraged by the fact that the board apparently eliminated all the proposed regulations attacking 227,” Mr. Unz told us on Friday.

The bilingual approach kept kids immersed in their native language in the belief that they would learn all subjects more quickly and pick up English. But it didn’t work that way. In a larger sense, nothing promotes separatism better than a barrier between the language a person speaks and the language spoken in the broader society. On an individual level, as one recall organizer told U.S. News writer Michael Barone, with bilingual education, “They [the kids] will get jobs in the fields or in the car wash.”

That’s why it’s so important that the state, and local school boards such as Santa Ana, assure the quickest transition to English, and follow the letter and spirit of the law under Prop. 227.

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