Bilingual education split not on strict ethnic lines

Polls of state voters show many Latinos support initiative

Martha Jimenez, a Latino activist in San Francisco, dismisses polls showing Latinos overwhelmingly support a proposed June ballot measure that would end bilingual education in California.

“Latinos don’t yet understand the initiative,” said Jimenez, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The polls’ questions are misleading. Latinos think they’re being asked whether they want their children to learn English. So of course they say yes.”

Claudia Rodriguez of Oakland, who attended San Francisco public schools but didn’t learn English until the ninth grade, doesn’t need to read the fine print to decide how she wants her son educated: in Spanish at home and English at school.

The emotionally charged “English for the Children” initiative, which would dismantle bilingual programs in California, was expected to divide voters along racial lines. But statewide polls, interviews with Bay Area Latinos and support for the measure from prominent Latino educators show a more complicated pattern.

Although Latino activists assail the measure as racist and part of a larger crusade against immigrants, 84 percent of Latinos surveyed across the state by the Los Angeles Times in mid-October said they favored “public school instruction conducted in English,” and wanted “students not fluent in English in a short-term English immersion program.”

This follows an earlier Times poll of Orange County Latinos, showing 83 percent favor English-language classes for all children when they begin school.

Other statewide polls on the measure are in the works. San Francisco pollster David Binder, hired by the California Association for Bilingual Education, will release results in early November. California pollster Mervin Field, who’s based in San Francisco, will release findings by the end of the month.

Rodriguez, 24, who works at the Spanish Network in Oakland helping immigrants become citizens, supports the concept of bilingual education.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “a lot of teachers don’t see the importance of us learning English.”

After her family immigrated to San Francisco from Guatemala when she was 9, Rodriguez attended the Mission Education Center, Horace Mann Middle School and the International Studies Academy.

“The big shock was, when I got to high school, I didn’t speak English,” she said. “All through middle school, teachers talked to me in Spanish, my friends spoke Spanish,and I took tests in Spanish – and got A’s! But when I got to high school, everyone spoke English, and I was supposed to read and do presentations in English. I got so frustrated I dropped out.”

Now in college and taking English language classes at night, Rodriguez said: “Teachers never prepared me to become part of the regular program where kids attend classes in English.”

Equally disenchanted with bilingual education is Agustin Mendoza, a father of two who works as a baker in Oakland.

Because his wife doesn’t speak English, the Mendoza family speaks Spanish at home. Mendoza’s daughter, who graduated from high school in Oakland, and his son, an 11th-grader, “don’t speak English fluently,” he said. “It’s a big concern.”

Because of the sheer number of Spanish-speaking students in California’s public schools, Latino parents and their children are at the heart of this initiative.

Latinos, who constitute 39 percent of total student enrollment, make up 80 percent of the 1.3 million California public school children who lack English skills – designated “limited English proficient.”

By 2005, as California’s student population increases by 1 million, to 6.4 million, Latino enrollment will become more than 50 percent of the total, according to the state Department of Education.

Veteran bilingual educator Maria Alzugaray, who assists and reviews bilingual programs in San Jose middle and high schools, said it was unfair to blame bilingual education for academic failure.

“Bilingual education is not a panacea,” Alzugaray said. “There are good and bad programs. You really have to ask those individuals who were failed by bilingual education what types of programs they or their children were in.”

The anti-bilingual initiative has garnered resounding support in early polls, Alzugaray said, because of the way it is written and “sold” to immigrants.

“It’s confusing to a lot of Latinos,” she said. “We want our children to learn English. But what’s not said in the initiative is that it would place kids from all different grades in one room and expect them to learn English in one year. There is absolutely no research to support this. And it will isolate and alienate kids who don’t speak English. If Latinos were told of this, they certainly wouldn’t endorse the initiative.”

San Jose high school student Sandra Corpus, whose first language is Spanish, says she doesn’t understand how Latinos could support the measure.

“When you force children to learn English, and they only speak Spanish or another language, you make them give up a part of themselves,” said Corpus, a junior at Willow Glen who maintains a 3.8 grade-point average. “If I had been in an English-only class, like the one this initiative says all kids should be in, part of myself would be gone. It’s not just a language that you give up. It’s a way of communicating with your parents, of keeping your heritage alive.”

If approved by voters in June – the campaign has collected more than the 434,000 signatures necessary to place the measure on the June primary ballot – non-English speakers younger than 10 would be placed in “English-language classrooms,” with intensive English instruction.

Children would no longer have the opportunity to learn in their native languages, whether Spanish, Pilipino, Cantonese, Punjabi or any of the 87 primary foreign languages spoken in California’s schools. Students who receive instruction in their native languages now are moved into English-only classrooms after four or five years.

“If this measure passes, there will be utter chaos,” said Mario Salgado, executive director of the Latino Network in San Francisco, a coalition of more than 300 Latino organizations statewide. “The initiative doesn’t even begin to address how the changes would be implemented.

“There are certainly problems with bilingual education, but you fix the problems. You don’t throw the whole system out.”

Salgado is confident that as soon as Latinos understand the implications of the initiative, they will rally against it.

“If a pollster asks Latino parents whether they want their children to learn English, 100 percent will say yes,” Salgado said. “This doesn’t mean they want to end bilingual education.

“What Latino parents aren’t being told is that this initiative takes away their rights to decide how they want their own children educated.”

Deborah Escobedo, an attorney with the Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy group in San Francisco, derides the initiative as the “second part of Proposition 187,” which limited government benefits and education to illegal immigrants and their children.

“What they couldn’t achieve with Prop. 187, they’re trying to do with this,” she said. “Why not let parents decide how their children will be taught? Too often, the immigrant voice is not heard. This is one more example of someone coming in and saying to immigrants, “We know what’s best for your child.’ “

The author and sponsor of the initiative is Ron Unz, a 36-year-old Silicon Valley software developer and 1994 candidate for governor.

His Latino co-chairs include Jaime Escalante, a nationally recognized Los Angeles educator whose teaching successes inspired the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver” ; Alice Callaghan, an Episcopalian priest who helped organize a boycott of bilingual education in Los Angeles; and Fernando Vega, a longtime Redwood City Democrat who in 1992 ran the Latino Clinton-Gore campaign in the South Bay.

“Twenty-five years of trying to make bilingual education work in California, and failing, should be enough to say it’s time to try something new,” said Unz, who has spent more than $200,000 of his own money on the initiative.

Unz defended the polls: “The questions that were asked were very specific. At some point, these self-proclaimed community leaders will have to conclude that ordinary people know how their own children should be educated.”

Fernando Vega, who as a Redwood City school board member in the late 1960s helped establish bilingual programs in the city’s schools, soured on the approach when his own grandchildren, who were fluent in English, were put in Spanish-only classrooms.

“Bilingual education is teaching Hispanic children Spanish — not English,” Vega said. “For all of these Latino activists to speak out against the measure and say everyday Latinos don’t know what they’re talking about when they support it shows they’re totally out of touch.

“And instead of letting the initiative divide the Latino community, we should come together and do what’s right for our children.”

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