SACRAMENTO — Education groups surfaced yesterday to battle an initiative that would end most California bilingual education programs, a ballot proposal that has captured the national media spotlight with a commanding lead in the polls.
A coalition of teacher unions and school administrators denounced the measure targeted for the June ballot as an extreme and dangerous experiment with the nearly 1.4 million students who speak little or no English.
“It’s a sink-or-swim, one-size-fits-all extremist experiment,” said Tom Tyner, vice president of the California Federation of Teachers.
The opposition campaign will not attempt to defend the current bilingual education program, but will focus instead on the problems that would be created by the initiative, said spokeswoman Kelly Hayes-Raitt.
The initiative sponsored by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley businessman and former Republican gubernatorial candidate, would replace the current bilingual education program where students can be taught in their native language for up to seven years.
The Unz initiative would require that students be taught in English only in “sheltered immersion” programs that would normally last no more than a year, unless parents request a waiver to put their child in a bilingual education program.
Bilingual education has become such a contentious issue that even members of the opposition coalition do not agree on the best method for teaching English to the young members of immigrant families.
David Sanchez, a California Teachers Association board member, said the state’s largest teachers union supports legislation by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, to create a flexible bilingual education system with more local control.
But Alpert’s bill has stalled for three years in a row, mainly because of opposition from another member of the new coalition, the California Association for Bilingual Education.
The original law authorizing bilingual education expired in 1987 when an extension was vetoed by former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. A year earlier, voters approved an initiative declaring English as the official language of California.
But bilingual education has continued under policy guidelines adopted by the state Department of Education, costing about $400 million a year. The department based its action, which has largely gone unchallenged, on a legal interpretation of what the veto actually did.
The bilingual program currently is unevenly administered, and about a quarter of the eligible children are said to receive no bilingual education services.
Last week, the Unz campaign submitted the last of about 760,000 signatures for the initiative, more than the 433,269 needed to qualify for the June ballot.
Opponents were rocked by a Los Angeles Times poll last month showing the Unz initiative supported by 80 percent of all voters and 84 percent of Latino voters. The opponents criticized the phrasing of the question and hope for a more favorable showing in a statewide Field Poll next month.
At a news conference, the opponents said the initiative denies waivers for average children under 10, outlaws successful bilingual education programs, and requires children with limited English to be combined into classrooms regardless of age and academic ability.
Hayes-Raitt said the initiative also would allow parents to sue teachers who use a single Spanish word in the classroom such as “ganas,” the slogan meaning desire used by Jaime Escalante, a well-known teacher who supports the initiative.
“I think most of their comments are a misreading of the initiative,” said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for the initiative campaign, English for the Children.
Annis said parents can request a waiver allowing their children to receive bilingual education, if school officials approve. She said the initiative allows, but does not require, students of different ages to be combined as a practical step when there are only a few with limited English.
Annis said the initiative allows parents to sue school officials who repeatedly refuse to provide English-language instruction, not teachers who use foreign language words in the classroom.
The initiative has received attention in the media as a successor to race-related initiatives that rolled back affirmative action programs and attempted to cut off public social services to illegal immigrants.
Although the opponents were harshly critical of the bilingual education initiative, they did not mention the issue of race.