Bilingual education, race to collide in California recall

California voters are bracing for a showdown over bilingual education next week between a Silicon Valley millionaire and a Hispanic activist described as the Al Sharpton of Orange County.

The nation’s foremost critic of bilingual education, millionaire Ron Unz, pushed for and got a recall election to oust Nativo Lopez, a Santa Ana school board member. Mr. Unz accuses Mr. Lopez of undermining efforts to teach in English by pressuring Hispanic families to keep their children in bilingual classes.

The Feb. 4 special election carries unusual significance because it takes place in Santa Ana, the city with the strongest concentration of Spanish speakers in the nation. About 74 percent of the Orange County community’s residents speak Spanish, and nearly 84 percent speak a language other than English, according to 2000 Census Bureau figures. Mr. Unz said that if Santa Ana voters reject Mr. Lopez because of his heavy-handed opposition to English immersion, it will send a message to other school districts trying to skirt the dictates of Proposition 227, the 1998 anti- bilingual education initiative.

Under Proposition 227, limited-English students may receive a year of bilingual education before being placed in mainstream English-speaking classrooms, unless their parents request waivers to keep them in bilingual classes. Such waivers are rare in most school districts, but they’re common in Santa Ana, which had 6,726 children on waivers in October, more than 80 percent of the county’s total.

“Santa Ana is the fifth largest school district in California, and it’s been the most blatant in its disregard for 227,” Mr. Unz said. “If the most heavily Spanish-speaking city in California recalls its biggest supporter of bilingual education, then it sends a very powerful message about where Latinos stand on bilingual education.”

The election also has gained notice for its contentiousness.

Mr. Unz calls Mr. Lopez “a crook” whose followers harassed those gathering signatures for the special election. Mr. Lopez says Mr. Unz is “sticking his big nose under the tent as a way of intimidating any Latino who disagrees with him.”

Mr. Unz contributed $85,000 to gather the 14,000 signatures needed to call the recall election. The ballot also asks voters to choose a replacement from a list of four candidates.

Mr. Lopez said that he encourages families to keep their children in bilingual classes because 76 percent of Santa Ana students are identified as limited-English speakers, the highest percentage of any district in California. The only thing he has done wrong, Mr. Lopez said, is to follow the rules set by Proposition 227.

“He [Mr. Unz] is protesting parental choice, something that’s in his own law,” Mr. Lopez said.

He said the real issue isn’t bilingual education, but race. What the parents organizing the recall are really angry about, he said, are his efforts to build a new elementary school in a wealthy area with a large white population.

“They just don’t want that school in their neighborhood because they fear that poor Latinos would be coming to where they live,” said Mr. Lopez, whose focus on racism earned him the Sharpton comparison in the Los Angeles Times.

“They’re using bilingual education as a pretext, a canard with Anglo voters.”

Mr. Unz dismissed the accusations, noting that the parents who organized the recall drive are Hispanics from working-class neighborhoods.

Their group, Parents for Education First, complains that children at some schools aren’t learning English because virtually every class is bilingual and taught primarily in Spanish.

Several parents describe how their children were placed with Spanish-speaking teachers in bilingual kindergarten classes, even though the students spoke fluent English and almost no Spanish.

One parent, Beatriz Salas, said that she had to transfer her children to a school on the outskirts of town to find an English-speaking kindergarten.

“They need to speak English or they’re going to be working in the fields,” said Mrs. Salas, a Mexican immigrant and native Spanish speaker.

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