Researchers, educators and experts at a Thursday conference criticized an initiative to limit bilingual education, calling it poorly written, misguided and “evil.”

The criticism sprouted after an analysis of research on how limited-English speaking children learn a second language, and the merits of being bilingual in a multicultural world, presenters said.

Near the end of a seven-hour conference at the University of California, Riverside, an attorney summarized the views of many bilingual education supporters in the audience of 150.

“This is the measure that wants to ignore all that research,” said Maribel Medina, an education attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Medina also vowed that her group would immediately sue to block the measure if it wins on June 2. The comment sent applause echoing throughout the Commons Cafeteria.

The English for the Children initiative was proposed by Palo Alto software millionaire Ron Unz, who says that bilingual education has failed to quickly and adequately teach immigrant children English. The measure would place limited-English children in about one year of English immersion classes with “nearly all” instruction in that language. After that, pupils would move to regular classrooms. Parents could seek waivers to exempt their children.

Unz and his campaign staff were not invited to the conference, called “Generations at Risk: The Realities and Debates of Bilingual Education.”

Carlos Velez-Ibanez, dean of UCR’s College of Humanities, Art and Social Sciences, said the event aimed to provide accurate research information and not to debate Unz.

Many speakers said bilingual education supporters need to mobilize against the measure. Planning is under way for a Riverside community meeting to discuss the initiative, said Alfredo Figueroa, director of UCR’s Chicano Student Programs.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Unz said measure supporters may have skipped the conference had they been invited.

“It sounds as though they weren’t looking for a balanced discussion,” said Sheri Annis. “It sounds like a very elite group that is completely out of touch with mainstream parents.”

Unz and supporters stand behind the initiative, Annis said.

Many presenters tried to dispel what they called myths about bilingual education that are fueling public support.

Henry Der, a deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education, said measure supporters believe the majority of limited-English pupils are struggling because they learn in their native language. Actually, the shortage of bilingual teachers means that 70 percent of English learners are being taught in English, Der said.

“We have to look at what’s going on in these English classes vs. what’s going on in bilingual classes,” Der said.

Eugene Garcia, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, stressed that there is “no negativeness to being bilingual.” Research proves that reading first in one’s native language can lead to literacy in a second language, Garcia said.

Unz and supporters have lambasted bilingual education for its 95 percent failure rate in getting children classified as English proficient. That argument also is flawed, said Reynaldo Macias, an education professor at UC Santa Barbara.

The number is for one year and doesn’t account for children that continue to progress, Macias said.

“In the last five years, for example, over 360,000 (limited-English proficient) students have been reclassified,” Macias said.

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