Tapping into what promises to be next year’s hot-button ballot issue, a new group calling itself English for the Children wants to persuade voters to jettison bilingual education in California public schools.
Led by Ron Unz, a political conservative who challenged Governor Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary, the group kicked off a signature drive in San Francisco yesterday to qualify the contentious issue for the state ballot next June. The effort is already under way in Southern California, although it has gathered only about 1,500 names so far toward the required 432,000.
Critics quickly labeled the move “divisiveness du jour” and “the next 187 [sic],” referring to the 1994 state initiative barring illegal immigrants from health and education services that is now tied up in court.
Unz, a software developer from Silicon Valley, has the financial wherewithal to make his English- only initiative a force in shaping next year’s political agenda.
Already the state Board of Education has asked for a full briefing on bilingual education for early next year. And the board members, Wilson appointees, already have shown sympathy for the English-only approach by letting Orange County schools eliminate all classes this September that are not taught in English.
Unz’s measure would require a similar approach in every school, outlawing instruction in a child’s native language. [sic]
California appears ripe for a bilingual education fight, since the number of children labeled “limited English proficient” has more than doubled in the past 10 years to 1.3 million — nearly a quarter of the state’s public school students.
The question of how best to educate them is an emotional issue that has long divided parents, educators and politicians.
At its most basic, the dispute centers on whether children should learn English quickly and intensively, or whether they should study math, science and social studies in their native language while studying English on the side.
About 30 percent of California’s 1.3 million limited-English students are taught in their native language, said Norman Gold, manager of bilingual compliance for the state Department of Education.
California spent at least $319 million last year on training teachers and providing classroom aides and materials specifically for children who speak little English.
Much of the state law governing bilingual education died in 1987. But schools still are required to teach English to non-English speakers and to make sure they learn math, science and other subjects
–in their own language, if necessary.
The initiative by Unz and his group — which includes state Republican Party vice chairman Bok Pon, who was born in China — would prohibit immigrant pupils under age 10 from learning academics in their native language. Instead, children would have to attend intensive English classes for as long as it took for them to learn the language, even if it meant forgoing other studies until they did.
“It isn’t the duty of the public schools to help children maintain their native culture,” Unz said.
He complains that just 5 percent of immigrant children in bilingual education programs exit them each year, a figure that is mirrored in San Francisco’s statistics.
“That’s a 95 percent failure rate,” he said.
The politician unveiled his initiative yesterday outside Jean Parker Elementary, the school attended by Kinney Lau, whose family sued the San Francisco school district in a case that led to the 1974 Supreme Court decision requiring bilingual education.[sic]
Critics accused proponents of distorting a serious educational issue with emotional appeals.
“The public is being sold a bill of goods here,” said Marta Jimenez, general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. She said the idea of withholding academic instruction from children until they learn English is “arrogant in the least, and seriously detrimental.”
She said it would violate a 1981 state high court ruling that requires districts to ensure that “students do not suffer educational or academic deficits because of their English language limitations.”
Pon joined Unz yesterday at Parker Elementary — a school he attended shortly after arriving in the United States from China in 1952.
In thickly accented English, Pon said that anything other than total English immersion is a disservice to children. He used his own experience to say why.
“I’ve been cheated,” he said. “They didn’t have bilingual education when I went to school, but they put all the Chinese speakers in a class together. All day we spoke Chinese.
“I failed in college because my English wasn’t good enough. What happened to me, I don’t want to happen to others.”
The number of students classified as “limited-English proficient” in California public schools, and the languages they speak (x):
— Spanish: 991,000 pupils.
— Vietnamese: 49,000 pupils.
— Hmong: 30,000 pupils.
— Cantonese: 24,000 pupils.
— Pilipino: 22,000 pupils.
— Khmer: 21,000 pupils.
— Korean: 16,000 pupils.
— Armenian: 15,000 pupils.
— Lao: 11,000 pupils.
— Mandarin: 9,000 pupils.
Total enrollment in California public schools: 5.5 million. <BR>(x) – numbers are for the 1995-96 school year, and have been rounded to nearest 1,000.
Source: California Department of Education.