Opponents of bilingual education received an early holiday gift yesterday when their measure requiring English-only classroom instruction qualified for the June ballot weeks sooner than expected.
“I’m very pleased. It’s a very important milestone to get rid of bilingual education in California for the first time in 30 years,” said Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software executive who has spent more than $300,000 to get the anti-bilingual measure on the ballot.
A second initiative requiring labor unions to obtain yearly permission >from employees before using dues for political contributions also qualified yesterday.
Both measures received more than the required 433,269 valid signatures needed to place them on the ballot.
And both measures are strongly opposed by the California Teachers Association and the smaller California Federation of Teachers.
The California Federation of Teachers’ political director, Kenneth Burt, acknowledged yesterday that battling the measure restricting use of dues is the teachers’ top priority. But the anti-bilingual measure is expected to dominate the educational debate for the next six months.
About one-third of the state’s 1.3 million limited-English speaking children are taught academics in their native language.
The new ballot measure would outlaw such instruction.
In its place, children under age 10 who are not fluent in English would be required to spend up to a year in intensive English-language classes. Parents could not pull their children from the program unless 19 other children with “special needs” — who are all in the same grade and at the same school — requested permission each year.
The measure would permit parents to sue individual teachers and school boards to enforce the English-only instruction. It also would appropriate $50 million per year for 10 years to teach adults English, if they agreed to tutor children in English.
Since introducing their measure in July, Unz and co-author Gloria Matta Tuchman, an elementary school teacher in Southern California, have watched with pleasure as polls conducted by the Los Angeles Times and the Field Institute indicated widespread support.
But it is unclear whether the high rate of support — 80 percent in the earlier Times poll, and 69 percent in the Field Poll — indicates support for the measure or disapproval of how non-English speaking children are taught in California, primarily in Los Angeles.
Yesterday, surrounded by the sound of rings from incoming calls and the incessant whine of the fax machine he uses to blanket newsrooms around the state with anti- bilingual information, Unz sent out the latest blow: a Los Angeles Daily News story revealing that an unspecified number of Los Angeles schools give immigrant children a three-hour recess to “mix” with English speakers.
“It’s dreadful,” said Unz.
The campaign has won a number of supporters, many of them immigrant families, by highlighting horror stories of children being unable to opt out of bilingual classes in the state’s largest school district, as well as in the Bay Area’s Redwood City and San Jose schools.
But opponents say the Unz initiative is even more restrictive than the programs Unz complains about. It would circumvent “local control” by changing state Education Code to require the nine articles and subsections of Unz’ lengthy, four-page measure, they said.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a political consultant with the “No on Unz” campaign, cited the recent Field Poll showing that the same voters who approved of the Unz initiative also thought local school boards should make decisions about bilingual education.
“Ron Unz is simply out of step with the state,” said Hayes-Raitt.
Governor Pete Wilson has not yet said whether he supports the initiative by Unz, who challenged him in the 1996 Republican gubernatorial primary and won 34 percent of the vote.
Wilson has endorsed the other measure that qualified yesterday, restricting political use of union dues, as has former vice president Dan Quayle.
Mark Bucher, a Southern California construction company executive and chairman for that campaign, said yesterday he was “thrilled” to hear that the measure qualified.
“This initiative is about fairness for workers, and giving them the right to choose what to do with their money,” he said.
But Elaine Johnson of the California Federation of Teachers, which uses 1 percent of its annual dues toward political action — such as opposing initiatives like the anti-bilingual effort — said Bucher’s measure was designed to squash such opposition.
“It’s clearly intended to shackle and silence working people,” Johnson said. “Corporations would have no such requirement restricting contributions to political action committees. So this really tilts the playing field toward the rich.”