Bilingual proponents strike back

Education: Initiative aimed at June ballot has serious flaws, they say.

SACRAMENTO — Opponents of a proposed initiative to eliminate most bilingual education in California launched their counterattack Tuesday, calling the proposal “extremist” and “untested.”

Representing many of the biggest state education groups, the coalition said the initiative — sponsored by Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz — would be a disaster for the 1.4 million California schoolchildren who speak little or no English.

“This is the beginning of the end for Ron Unz’s unreasonable and extreme experiment,” said Laurie Olsen, co-director of Citizens for an Educated America.

Although it has not yet qualified for the June ballot, the “English for the Children” initiative is already shaping up to be one of the most hotly debated issues leading up to the June election.

The initiative would dismantle the state’s system of bilingual education, which for two decades has been California’s preferred method of teaching students who are not proficient in English.

The Unz plan

Under the Unz proposal, the overwhelming majority of instruction would take place in English, with parents allowed to request bilingual classes. Students with little or no English skills would be placed in a “sheltered English immersion” class for one year and then moved into regular classrooms.

The initiative’s campaign, co-chaired by Orange County teacher Gloria Matta-Tuchman, is off to a quick start, picking up early endorsements >from the Republican Party and Sacramento teacher Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver” movie fame.

Last week, the campaign finished submitting petitions with approximately 760,000 signatures, well over the 433,000 needed to qualify for the ballot. Early public opinion polls indicate strong support among voters.

Fighting back

But opposition leaders said they are now ready to unleash a strong counter-campaign, painting the initiative as a simplistic solution to a complicated problem. Included in the coalition are the California Teachers Association, the Service Employees International Union, the Latino Civil Rights Network and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

Coalition leaders said they do not intend to debate the merits of bilingual instruction, which has uneven support in the state, even among educators. Instead, opponents said, they will try to expose what they say are serious flaws in Unz’s initiative.

Chief among those problems, they say, is the proposed one-year “sheltered English immersion” classes where students not literate in English would be taught in English, with special help, while they learn the new language.

Opponents say such a class would be a disaster because the initiative would allow schools to group students “of different ages” and “different native language groups” into the same class.

“We’re supposed to pretend that because they have limited English needs that they have the same academic needs and we should use the same approach to teach them,” Olsen said. “That may make sense to Ron Unz. But it doesn’t make sense to us.”

Unz’s campaign officials say opponents are “misreading” the initiative and that the clause in question was intended to address situations where schools have just a handful of students with limited English skills.

“Once the initiative passes, those third-grade students currently in bilingual education programs would be placed in a third-grade bilingual immersion class with other third-graders,” campaign spokeswoman Sherri Annis said.

‘Gantlet for parents’

The initiative allows parents to request bilingual education. But opponents say there are so many conditions attached to such a waiver that “it’s basically a gantlet for parents,” said Don Iglesias, a board members of the Association for School Administrators.

Opponents also warned that teachers could be sued if they use any language other than English.

Backers counter that the initiative does not prohibit non-English instruction entirely, it just discourages it, and such lawsuits are unlikely.

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