A group of teachers opposed to bilingual education have forced the Los Angeles teachers union to schedule a vote on a proposal that the union reject a school district offer to pay bonuses of up to $5,000 a year to 4,000 bilingual teachers.

If the proposal passes, the Los Angeles Unified School District will find it difficult to continue its bilingual program, which serves the largest number of limited-English-speaking students in the country, district officials said.

The 22,000-member United Teachers-Los Angeles, which represents the majority of teachers in the school district, will vote by mail next month on the proposal by Learning English Advocates Drive (LEAD), a group receiving financial support from two ultra-conservative English-only organizations.

Want Policy Reversed

The LEAD teachers say they want to reverse the union’s policy of seeking higher pay for bilingual classroom teachers. Paying those teachers more money is “totally divisive for union members,” said LEAD founder Sally Peterson, a teacher at Glenwood Elementary School in Sun Valley.

School district officials and other supporters of bilingual education say the annual bonuses are essential to recruiting and keeping qualified bilingual teachers. Without them, they say, many teachers would seek work at other area school districts, many of which do pay a premium for teachers with full bilingual credentials.

“Without compensation, who is going to want to stay in bilingual classrooms?” said Mark Meza-Overstreet, a bilingual teacher and one of several union members fighting the LEAD proposal.

United Teachers-Los Angeles President Wayne Johnson said Thursday that he thought the proposal stood “a very good chance” of passage but said it was difficult to predict the outcome. “It’s such an emotional issue,” he said. “I really don’t know.”

Two years ago, the LEAD group successfully organized a referendum that changed UTLA’s position from supporting bilingual education to supporting English immersion techniques, but that referendum made no mention of compensation for bilingual teachers and has had little actual impact on the school curriculum.

The Los Angeles school district has more than 160,000 children who speak only limited English, most of them Latino. A wide range of generally accepted studies show that elementary school children tend to progress faster if they are taught academic subjects in their native language while they are learning English.

Disputing the accuracy of those studies, Peterson said that members of her group believe that bilingual education inhibits children in learning English.

Peterson said that she hopes the referendum will scuttle the district’s bilingual program, which was approved by the school board in May, 1988. A major component of the district bilingual plan are annual bonuses ranging from $2,500 to $5,000 for fully certified bilingual teachers.

“If the union kills the salary portions, it would cripple the plan,” said district spokeswoman Diana Munatones.

School board member Leticia Quezada, who represents the district’s Eastside, said the rapidly growing number of non-English-speaking students in the district has created a “crisis situation” that can be solved only by adding more bilingual teachers. The district’s bilingual pilot programs showed over several years that students in bilingual classrooms score much higher on tests in a variety of academic subjects than those in traditional English classrooms, she said.

“To take a position against the bilingual plan is to take a position against bilingual students,” Quezada said.

The Los Angeles school district’s offer to pay bonuses to bilingual teachers is one of the few points of agreement in the current contract impasse between the union and the district. But UTLA Vice President Frances Haywood said that members could vote down the pay bonuses before any contract is signed.

Even if the district continued to offer the bonuses, “We would have to turn them down,” Haywood said.

The Learning English Advocates Drive was formed two years ago by teachers at Glenwood School, where the student body in recent years has changed from predominantly white to predominantly Latino, Peterson said.

The organization has since grown to about 20,000 members statewide, with chapters in San Diego, San Francisco and Orange County, Peterson said. She said the group receives money from two groups, U.S. English and English First.

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