SAN FRANCISCO — A strange thing happened when Fernando Vega stuck three signs in his front yard.
The signs read “Ingles Para Los Ninos” — English for the children — in support of a contentious California ballot initiative seeking to halt bilingual education, which teaches children in their native languages. But the placards proved a lure to some of the very people thought to be most supportive of bilingual education — Spanish-speaking parents hoping to help their kids.
They came knocking on his door.
“Senor, what do you have to do to get into your school?” they asked. “The schools don’t teach my children English.”
Vega, a retired airline mechanic and former school board member in Redwood City, says the parents’ misplaced enthusiasm only boosted his passion to dismantle the bilingual education system he had fought to build in the late 1960s.
“It was supposed to be about kids learning English, overcoming language barriers,” says Vega, now honorary chairman of the “English for the Children” movement. “That’s not happening anymore.”
The initiative would require public school pupils to be taught in English, except when parents specifically ask for bilingual help. Children who come to school speaking little or no English would spend their first year in “a sheltered English immersion class,” as described by initiative author Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software executive and one-time candidate for governor.
Early polls, including one by the San Francisco-based Field Institute, show the June 2 ballot initiative is backed by more than two-thirds of voters, whether they question all voters or specifically Hispanics. It also has gained support from at least one high-profile Latino educator, Jaime Escalante, the tough-talking educator depicted in the movie “Stand and Deliver.”
The program’s biggest problem, many say, is the number of students who graduate from the dual-language program. The idea is to keep the children from falling behind in core subjects while teaching them English, but last year, only 6.7 percent of California’s 1.4 million “limited English proficient” students earned “proficient” status.
Although that percentage is slightly higher than in recent years, even supportive educators concede at least 10 percent of the non-English speaking students should move on to proficient levels each year. They say the system falters under a constant flow of new immigrants and a chronic shortage of native-language teachers.
“We constantly get at least as many new students as we redesignate, so it almost looks as though we’re standing still when we’re not,” said Lydia Stack, a coordinator for the San Francisco public school’s Language Academy.
Bilingual education programs exist nationwide, with particular concentrations of non-English-speaking children in Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.
But California’s public schools account for more than half of the estimated 2.44 million non-fluent students nationwide. Those 1.4 million California students, fully one-quarter of the state’s public school enrollment, are predominantly Spanish-speaking.
Because of a shortage of teachers and textbooks, only about 30 percent of the children who need language help get core subjects — math, science and social studies — taught to them in their native languages. Mostly, that’s Spanish, although some youngsters get at least some lessons in such languages as Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
Unz, who once challenged Gov. Pete Wilson for the Republican nomination, has spent more than $300,000 of his own money on “English for the Children.” For his trouble, he’s been called a political opportunist and even a racist.
Critics wonder why a single man with no children, a computer millionaire who lives in the rarified environs of Palo Alto, has such an interest in the education of immigrant children. He simply shrugs.
“I don’t see why it’s controversial to teach little children English,” Unz says.
If the initiative is approved, Unz says his next stop will be Capitol Hill, where he may find support for national legislation from House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Earlier this month, Gingrich said immigrant children should have to learn English by fourth grade. “When we allow children to stay trapped in bilingual programs where they do not learn English, we are destroying their economic future,” Gingrich said.
Unz frequently tells listeners he decided to write his initiative last year after hearing that Hispanic parents were picketing a Los Angeles school to demand their children be taught in English.
Yet some immigrant parents approve of bilingual education and fiercely oppose its erosion.
Two weeks ago, Hispanic parents kept 379 students out of Santa Barbara elementary schools for three days to protest the school board’s unanimous decision to halt bilingual education. Some 600 people attended a raucous school board meeting, with at least 100 speaking.
For some Hispanics, allowing Spanish-speaking children to learn in their own language is a deeply cultural issue, fundamentally different from the rapid, eager assimilation of earlier immigrant waves.
“We hold the language as part of our identity,” says Alejandro Juarez, who teaches social studies and other subjects in Spanish to recent arrivals at a San Francisco middle school. “And we are so close to Mexico. To think that we have to speak just in English and forget about Spanish is to forget about yourself.”
One of his students, 12-year-old Brenda Simental, moved from Durango, Mexico, with her family two years ago. The seventh-grader thinks she might like to be a lawyer and can’t comprehend why anyone would stop her from learning in Spanish.
“I don’t want to forget,” Brenda says, in Spanish, on a lunch break. “I need to know both languages to have a better future.”
Others assess the future differently.
Bok Pon, a San Francisco businessman born in China, says he long had doubts about bilingual education — in part because his own poor English skills caused him to drop out of college in the late 1950s.
He speaks proudly of his two sons, both professionals with advanced engineering degrees, and says he has no worries that they do not speak Chinese.
Says Pon, now vice chairman of the state’s Republican Party: “They are Americans, not Chinese.”