Growing support for the elimination of bilingual education could translate into big changes for thousands of school children taught in their native language.

Thursday, organizers of a proposed initiative to roll back bilingual education in California filed the first of what they expect will be 720,000 voter signatures to qualify the measure for June’s primary ballot.

Voters in the Orange Unified School District in Orange County already have overwhelmingly approved school board action to replace bilingual education with “English immersion.”

These movements have some educators in Ventura County and across the state worried about the quality of instruction for non-English speaking students.

“We are one of the few industrialized nations that does not value being bilingual,” said Bernard Korenstein, superintendent of the Oxnard School District, where half of the students have limited-English skills.

Korenstein is so concerned about the fate of bilingual education that he will ask the school board to pass a resolution supporting it at Wednesday’s meeting.

“Bilingual education is one of the most misunderstood educational programs — it is not designed to keep children in their primary language,” he said.

Statewide, 24 percent of public school students are not fluent in English. One in five Ventura County children have limited English skills.

Most schools initially teach non-English speaking youngsters in their native language, and include intensive English classes. Only later, when the students are more proficient in English, do they move into English-only classrooms.

Although many educators believe parents support Ventura County’s existing bilingual education programs, many are fearful that change is on the way.

Sponsored by Republican millionaire businessman Ron Unz, the program dubbed “English for the Children,” would end financing for bilingual education, which cost the state $319 million last year. The proposal would virtually ban immigrant pupils younger than 10 from learning in their native language, favoring a method called “English immersion.”

Children not fluent in English would receive about a year of special help and then move into mainstream classes. The plan would also hold teachers and school officials liable for violating its provisions and calls for the state to spend $500 million to tutor adults in English.

“The proposed Unz initiative is a framework for failure that our state cannot afford,” said Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education.

Ventura Unified School District Superintendent Joseph Spirito said he is concerned about the initiative. He believes non-English speaking children will fall behind their English-speaking counterparts and eventually drop out of school.

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