Multimillionaire Ron Unz, the driving force behind a ballot initiative that dismantled bilingual education programs in California, says getting a similar initiative before Arizona voters is “a virtual certainty.”

“And once they get it on the ballot, I would be amazed if it didn’t pass,” said Unz, who was in Tucson yesterday to huddle with a local grass-roots group trying to end bilingual education in Arizona.

Getting the issue on the Arizona ballot would be “cheap” compared with the expense of putting one before California voters, and it could be on the ballot as early as November 1999, he said.

The California initiative, known as Proposition 227, cost backers $1.2 million, with Unz providing the lion’s share of the money. An Arizona initiative would cost $200,000 to $300,000, Unz said.

Unz, who said earlier he would help finance an Arizona initiative, said yesterday that Arizonans also would pitch in. “Early indications are positive,” he said.

To get things rolling, Unz bought a fax machine and copier yesterday for the grass-roots group, English for the Children of Arizona.

Unz said the group invited him to step in because “none of them have been involved in political campaigns before.”

Proposition 227, also known as the “Unz Initiative,” was approved by California voters in June. It requires students in bilingual education programs to enter a “sheltered immersion” program to teach them English within a year.

Unz said he met with attorneys Thursday in Phoenix “to explore the extent to which the (California) proposition might be modified” so it could be used in Arizona. He said only minor changes were needed.

California school districts are required to adopt Proposition 227’s guidelines this fall.

Unz said that if bilingual programs in California, many of which have existed for 30 years, aren’t working, then they aren’t ever going to work.

“If a child can’t learn English in three or four years, he probably has some learning disability,” he said.

Tucson Unified School District has had bilingual education for 29 years.

Leonard Basurto, TUSD director of bilingual education and Hispanic studies, said moves to dismantle bilingual education are misguided.

“What we need to do is inform parents of what bilingual education is and inform them that they have a choice at this time,” Basurto said.

TUSD educators determine if students are proficient in English and place them in bilingual programs based on the results of an exam, he said.

If parents don’t want their children in the program, “It’s as simple as writing a letter to the principal. It doesn’t take any more than that,” he said.

Unz said gathering signatures to get an initiative on the ballot would be easier than in California.

Only about 112,000 valid signatures of registered voters are needed, compared to the 500,000 required in California, he said.

And the Arizona group also has more time to gather signatures than backers of California’s proposition, Unz said.

California required that the signatures be gathered within 150 days.

But backers of an Arizona initiative could have at least eight months, and perhaps up to 20 months, he said.

They could begin gathering signatures the day after the Nov. 3 general election, and have eight months – until July 1999 – to gather enough signatures to get the issue on the November 1999 ballot.

Backers would have 20 months to gather signatures for the 2000 ballot.

Unz, who ran in California’s GOP gubernatorial primary against Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994, acknowledged that fighting bilingual education might bolster his political aspirations.

But he said he has “always been peripherally interested” in the subject of bilingual education.

Unz said he decided to take up the cause of ending bilingual education after hearing in 1996 about a protest by Los Angeles parents who wanted to pull their children from bilingual programs.

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