Bilingual ed reform clears major hurdle

Supporters claim 700,000 signatures

Supporters of an initiative to dismantle California’s bilingual education program began submitting more than 700,000 signatures Thursday to counties across the state, virtually assuring a spot on the June 1998 ballot.

Former gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, co-sponsor of the initiative, said the submitted petitions far surpassed the 433,269 signatures required to qualify for the ballot.

The signatures must still be validated by each county before the Secretary of State confirms a spot on the ballot by mid-December.

But Unz’s optimism stretched to election day.

“Seven months from today, our failed system of bilingual education will be just an unhappy memory, and all California school children will have the right to learn English in California schools,” Unz said.

If the English for the Children initiative is approved by voters, public school students will be placed in English-based classrooms unless parents can prove a bilingual education program would benefit their children. The school district would have final say.

That would reverse the current practice, in which schools place certain children in bilingual education unless their parents formally request otherwise.

The effort to dismantle the 25-year-old bilingual education program, however, promises to be contentious.

“A lot of people fought very hard to get bilingual education,” said Josefina Alvarado, director of Oakland’s Centro Legal de la Raza educational empowerment program. “And to have fought these continual attacks on bilingual education is disgraceful. I don’t think it’s a failure.”

Unz, a Palo Alto-based computer software executive, has said bilingual education fails to teach kids English. In bilingual education programs, students are taught at least two academic subjects in their native language.

“The English language is the language of opportunity and upward mobility,” Unz said during a debate last month Berkeley. “English has become the unofficial international language.”

But supporters of bilingual education argue that teaching a child to read or do math in their own languages helps ensure the student doesn’t fall behind academically while learning English — a process they say can take five to seven years.

“If you do not allow young children to learn basic skills in their native language … they will go on to middle school and high school playing academic catch up,” said San Francisco Superintendent Waldemar Rojas, in a speech to the California Association for Bilingual Education three weeks ago.

Opponents of the initiative have created the political action committee Citizens for an Educated America — a coalition of bilingual education groups and Hispanic organizations.

The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund hasn’t joined the PAC yet, but will be looking to legally challenge the initiative.

“We are analyzing the legal infirmities of the initiative,” said San Francisco MALDEF staff attorney Joseph Jaramillo. “There may be legal challenges even before it gets on the ballot. It seems very unlikely that the narrow (teaching) approach will meet federal requirements.”

Bilingual education was established in 1974 after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that placing students who couldn’t speak English in regular classrooms was a violation of their civil rights.

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