Bilingual program's defenders mobilizing

Measure would require English immersion

They’ve hired one of Sacramento’s top political consultants.

They have on their side one of California’s heavyweight political players, the California Teachers Association.

And opponents of a proposed ballot initiative that would largely eliminate bilingual education in California’s public schools say they believe the measure, in the words of their campaign consultant, has “a few flaws that would be fun to bring to the light of day.”

On Tuesday, opponents of the proposed initiative, sponsored by Republican millionaire businessman Ron Unz, are scheduled to launch their campaign with a news conference in Sacramento. But until now, as one observer said, bilingual education advocates mostly have been “curiously” quiet in the debate over the self-titled “English for the Children” initiative.

“The silence of the bilingual-education establishment has been deafening,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Toms Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont. “They’ve lived in a sheltered world and they have to realize that in California, nothing is sacred.”

That silence comes in the face of what some political experts say is a tough challenge facing opponents of the initiative: switching the debate from one about the flaws of bilingual education to one about the merits of the proposed measure.

“There’s no question that the overwhelming majority of Californians would like to make a big change,” said GOP political consultant Arnold Steinberg, who worked the campaign for Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure approved by voters a year ago. “I’d much rather be the political strategist doing the campaign for it rather than against it.”

Despite polling that shows that voters are unhappy with bilingual education programs in California schools, however, some political experts said it would be premature to declare this political fight over before it’s started.

“This is not as simple an issue as one might think. . . . It’s way too early. It’s a somewhat volatile issue, and it’s totally up for grabs,” said Gale Kaufman, a Sacramento campaign consultant.

Supporters of the Unz initiative already have filed the signatures of about 750,000 voters to qualify it for the June primary ballot. They need 433,269 valid signatures.

The initiative would end bilingual education in California’s public schools as it is currently practiced, implementing in its place a program of “sheltered English immersion . . . not normally intended to exceed one year.”

Sacramento Democratic political consultant Richie Ross, who will lead the opposition, said he isn’t going to “run a campaign that defends the educational status quo.”

“But I do think I can ask voters to think about what (Unz’s proposal) imposes” on the more than 1 million children currently classified as limited-English-proficient students, he said.

“It’s not sink or swim,” said Linda Nava Ventriglia,an educator with the Sacramento City Unified School District. “It’s just sink, period.”

Kelly Hayes-Raitt,spokeswoman for Citizens for an Educated America, the coalition opposing the Unz measure, said the question before voters “is not a referendum on bilingual education. . . . This is a very specific vote on an initiative that lays out . . . a very extreme proposal.”

Unz rejects such characterizations, countering that the current system of bilingual education “is almost indefensible.”

At most, he said, 15 percent of students currently in bilingual programs are getting an “adequate” education. Another one-third of limited-English-proficient students already are in a sink-or-swim situation, and “they are given no help whatsoever,” he said.

“We’re putting them in an environment where they can learn English as quickly as possible with other children who are trying to learn English,” Unz said of his proposal.

Opposition consultant Ross hopes to take aim at that proposal, which says “English learners of different ages but whose degree of English proficiency is similar” can be placed in the same classroom.

Ross said that presents troubling scenarios. “If your 7-year-old girl is in a classroom with a 13-year-old boy, you have no right to appeal as a parent,” he said.

Unz said the grouping of younger and older students is possible, but isn’t required. Furthermore, he said, that provision more likely would apply where “you have a small school in a rural area” with few limited-English-proficient students. He said schools with large numbers of such students will be able to group students by age more easily.

Opponents got a major boost when the teachers association announced late last month that it would oppose the Unz measure. Left undetermined by the CTA for now is how much money it will spend to fight it. A CTA spokesman said the group will not make spending commitments until it knows what initiatives actually will make the ballot.

GOP consultant Steinberg estimated that opponents will need to raise at least $5 million to have a chance to defeat the initiative.

The CTA’s support, monetary and otherwise, will be crucial to the opponents’ cause, political observers say. Yet, when the CTA announced its opposition, there was no organized political campaign to trumpet the news.

Indeed, backers of bilingual education may have “dug themselves into a hole” by failing to offer any sort of public response to date, said the Toms Rivera Policy Institute’s Pachon.

Still, he said, the real issue — “What’s the best way for kids to learn English?” — needs further debate. “Structured (English) immersion has the possibility of really being submersion in many school districts across the state,” Pachon said.

The initiative would require that all public school students “be taught English by being taught in English.” Individual parents could obtain a waiver to that mandate if specific requirements are met.

Limited-English-speaking children under age 10 would need to establish “special needs” certified by the school principal and staff to qualify for a waiver, according to the initiative. Such a finding would be subject to the “examination and approval of the local superintendent, under guidelines established by and subject to the review of the local Board of Education,” the measure says.

And at any individual school, the parents of 20 students in a given grade level would need to obtain waivers for bilingual instruction to occur, the measure says. If that requirement is not met, individual students who got a waiver would be allowed to transfer to a school offering bilingual instruction.

Another provision gives parents and legal guardians the standing to sue. “Any school board member . . . or public school teacher or administrator who willfully and repeatedly refuses to implement (the measure) . . . may be held personally liable for fees and actual damages,” according to the initiative.

Such provisions, opponents of the measure contend, represent critical flaws.

“If the teachers and administrators don’t do this to the letter of the law, they are going to be sued, held personally liable and taken to court,” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman,a past president of the California Association for Bilingual Education and a key organizer of the Unz opposition.

Parents of children younger than 10, she said, “don’t have the right to reject this program. . . . There are no options, no way out.”

Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the Unz campaign, said the initiative would in fact require parents “to affirm their support for bilingual education” by opting into the program, but she denied that equates to a lack of parental choice.

She downplayed concerns about the provision holding teachers and others liable for enforcement.

“That is there to give the initiative some teeth,” Annis said, “(but) we really don’t foresee it being used unless someone is blatantly violating the law.”

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