Bilingual education on the ballot: the Unz Initiative

Many school officials are in the uncomfortable position of supporting bilingual education reform, but opposing the measure they feel would compromise local control.

Despite polls showing vast public support for a state initiative to severely restrict bilingual education, officials representing Santa Barbara County’s largest school districts generally oppose the measure.


In the main, however, their objections do not stem from a belief in the effectiveness of bilingual education. These officials are for the most part supporters of reform, not defenders of the controversial program.


The reason most administrators and board members from Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria, Santa Maria and Guadalupe say they oppose the so-called Unz Initiative – Proposition 227 on the June 2 ballot – is that because it mandates what they believe is a potentially disastrous “one-size-fits-all” program for teaching children English.

They complain it would take the decision-making power away from locally elected officials and educators and restrict the flexibility they enjoy in selecting and designing educational programs.”I can see why the Unz Initiative is here,” said Santa Barbara Schools Superintendent Michael Caston. “But, I don’t think it’s written in a way that is going to get us where we need to be.”

Many residents of the state disagree. Polls by major newspapers and opinion research firms indicate most Californians are dissatisfied with the results of bilingual education programs and strongly endorse the state ballot measure, sponsored by the Silicon Valley businessman for whom it is named, Ron Unz. Many seem to believe it is the best way to spur reform.

Caston himself originated an Unz-like district plan eliminating the bilingual education program in Santa Barbara schools this fall – a move that touched off a tumultuous community debate.

But Caston’s actions within the district do not conflict with his opinion about the Unz Initiative. The approach proposed by the initiative would limit districts in the same way bilingual education laws used to limit districts’ efforts to educate children who could not read and write English, he said.”We were required to do it (bilingual education,) whether it worked or not,” said Caston, whose elementary district has about 2,500 children who do not speak, read, or write English well. “Now, again, we’d have to be in the position where we can’t make adjustments.”

The initiative would give parents the option of signing waivers to have their children placed in bilingual classes. But the waivers would be granted only under special circumstances: if students are 10 or older and if they already know English or if they have special needs that could not be met in a regular, English-only classroom. Before a “special needs” waiver could be granted, a child would have to be enrolled in an English-immersion class for at least 30 days.

Students who are not fluent in English – they’re referred to in the measure as “English learners” – would be enrolled in an English-immersion program. They generally would be in the class for no longer than one year. The immersion program would use techniques such as repetition of key vocabulary words, use of visual aids and demonstrations, and frequent previews and reviews of lessons.

Other superintendents in Santa Barbara County are as wholeheartedly against the initiative as Caston is, and primarily for the same reason: They say it takes away a school district’s right to choose the type of educational approach it uses.”I totally believe in a community determining what the best educational programs are for their kids,” said Van Riley, superintendent of the Carpinteria Unified School hools are worried about the liability clause in the initiative, which states that school personnel can be sued if they fail to follow the law.”Are we going to be liable for the progress or lack of progress that students make?” wondered Lara.

And Spanish-speaking parents are wondering how much of a role they’ll be able to play in their children’s education.”When we say English immersion, what does that mean? `That nobody’s going to be able to speak Spanish?’ ” asks Lara, summarizing questions he’s gotten from parents.

Supporters of the initiative say that isn’t the intent; teachers and aides would be able to continue using a limited amount of Spanish in the classroom to help students understand their lessons.

And, they point out that the measure would allocate funds for adult education, so parents could learn English, too, and better help their children.

Like superintendents in the South County, Jack Garvin of the Orcutt Union School District is worried Unz’s plan won’t work.”If we taught reading the same way Unz proposes we teach English, the public would kill us,” Garvin said, calling the initiative’s approach one of “sink-or-swim.”


Trustees from many districts have been looking ahead to the consequences of passage because of the apparent widespread support for the measure.

Santa Maria-Bonita, for instance, delayed the purchase of some new language arts textbooks this year since the district can’t use Spanish-language editions of the books if the initiative passes.

Still, many officials are taking a wait-and-see approach, and are holding off on plans for implementation.”I guess we’re being optimistic,” said Lara. “We’re hoping this is never going to go through.”

Caston optimistically said that even if the Unz Initiative does pass, his district’s newly adopted English Acquisition Plan should be in compliance with the measure. However, whether everyone agrees with that view is another matter.”I’m sure there will be some analysis from the state that will cause us to have to make some adjustments, but I’m sure we’ll be OK,” he said.

Caston also believes his district will continue to receive state funding for students with limited English skills under its new program. The district gets about $70 extra per year for each English learner.

Whether districts could continue receiving that bilingual funding for such students under the Unz Initiative, however, is still unclear.

Paul Cordeiro, Santa Barbara County assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the Unz plan would greatly disrupt plans for many districts.”The Unz Initiative makes the changes in the Santa Barbara district look tame by comparison,” he said.

Cordeiro is concerned about the language of the initiative.”Unz says for reasons I don’t understand that you only have a year to provide any type of support programs for kids, and it doesn’t say people providing that support have to have any training to do it,” he said.

Another drawback, Cordeiro said, is that the initiative would allow schools to “herd together” students of different ages into one class to be immersed in English that first year.

Should the initiative pass in June, school districts on the traditional schedule will be required to carry it out in September, a very tight turnaround. Schools on the year-round calender, which often begin their academic year during the summer, would have until the following term.

But even that timing is unsettled. If a legal challenge is filed – and that is almost a certainty – there could be a delay in the implementation.


School officials in Goleta, Santa Maria-Bonita and Guadalupe have all passed resolutions opposing the Unz Initiative.

Trustees of the Santa Maria High School District will consider a resolution in opposition to the proposition at their May meeting.

Three of those four districts use instruction in Spanish in early grades as a means to moving students into English.

But they also employ other methods.”In Goleta, we’ve taken a wide range of approaches, from primary language instruction all the way to the occasional pull-out into English-as-a-Second-Language instruction,” said Goleta school board member Patty Forgie.

Many districts have worked to speed up students’ transition from Spanish to English fluency and literacy.

Still, John Franklin, Carpinteria school board president, who opposes the initiative, said he understands the frustation many have with bilingual education programs.”Bilingual education wasn’t intended to be a 10-to-15-year perennial process for kids, and that’s what it’s become,” he said.

Backers of the Unz Initiative frequently cite statistics that show only 5 percent of limited-English-speaking students are reclassified as English-proficient each year.

Unz and his supporters claim that because school districts receive additional state funding to educate limited-English-proficient students, they have an incentive to keep students in bilingual classes longer than necessary.

But school officials say numbers don’t tell the true story of education.”Yes, we do have a small percentage that are transitioning,” said Maggie White, a spokesperson for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t learning English. I would never say that. They’re working their hearts out.”

At her district, a K-8 district where 50 percent of the 10,200 students are limited English speakers, the school board commissioned a review of its bilingual program.

Board members were concerned about low scores on standardized, English-language tests, and about the amount of time it takes students to make the transition to English.

At the same time, the board condemned the Unz Initiative.

Bob Keatinge, Carpinteria’s director of curriculum and instruction, pointed out that only 30 percent of all students with limited English skills in California are in bilingual education programs.

It is unjust, he said, to place the blame for low performance levels of students on bilingual education alone.

Comments are closed.