California voters debating whether to junk bilingual education

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Fernando Vega remembers taking his school books to the cotton fields of South Texas, picking up English as he picked crops during the Depression.

Isabel Vazquez recalls being shunted into a class for “special needs” kids 30 years ago when teachers in rural California mistook her lack of English for mental deficiency.

Today, both are fluent in Spanish and English, passionate about education — and at polar opposites in a battle over bilingual education.

Vega supports Proposition 227, the ballot initiative proposed by millionaire and failed gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz that would essentially do away with bilingual education. Vasquez is fighting to save it.

Across California, an electorate still sore from the punches thrown in battles over affirmative action and immigration is tackling yet another ballot initiative spiked with the thorny issues of race, culture and who will control the future.

“Once again we have an issue that is all about race being lifted to the ballot by a man who clearly has other political ambitions,” said Jim Shultz, executive director of The Democracy Center in San Francisco.

Proposition 227, which goes before voters June 2, would put children who can’t speak English into immersion programs taught overwhelmingly in English for no more than a year.

It has been endorsed by the State Republican Party (over the objections of party leaders) and Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles school teacher whose innovative methods were the subject of the movie “Stand and Deliver.”

Arguments for the proposition are that the current system does a bad job of teaching English and, worse, condemns thousands of children to slipping hopelessly behind their English-schooled classmates.

“Bilingual education has been a disaster,” says Unz.

Opponents include the California Teachers Association — and President Bill Clinton.

Administration officials announced this week they are against a measure Education Secretary Richard Riley says is “not the way to go.”

More than 50 languages are spoken on California schoolyards and the state offers instruction in 20 of them. But the vast majority of children with limited English proficiency speak Spanish as a first language, turning the bilingual debate into a largely Latino issue.

As with the 1994 Proposition 187 ballot battle over limiting state services to illegal immigrants (passed but tied up in court) and the 1996 Proposition 209 fight to repeal affirmative action, (passed and beginning to be implemented), California’s bilingual battle is being watched by other states.

Early opinion polls show the proposition has strong support.

If it does pass, it is likely to undermine national bilingual funding, predicted Eugene Garcia, former director of the federal Office of Bilingual Education.

“It’s not just going to affect California,” said Garcia, now dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s, Graduate School of Education.

Nationally, about 3.2 million students have limited English skills — mainly in Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois — and 1.3 million are in bilingual programs, according to the Education Department.

In California, about 1.4 million of the state’s 5 million public students have limited English proficiency.

Unz, 36, who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Pete Wilson for the gubernatorial nomination in 1994, says he’s not playing racial politics.

He notes he is the grandson of Eastern European immigrants and campaigned against Proposition 187, the measure that would have denied education, schools and non-emergency medical services to illegal immigrants.

“I really can’t think of anything that would more benefit California’s immigrant population than ensuring that their children are taught English when they go to school,” he said.

Unz took up the bilingual education cause after reading about Hispanic parents who were boycotting Los Angeles schools for insisting on teaching their children in Spanish.

He blasts the current system as having a 95 percent failure rate.

But opponents point out that only 30 percent of the students getting bilingual education are actually being taught in their primary language. The remainder, mostly due to a shortage of teachers, are in other programs that emphasize English and are similar to Unz’s immersion idea.

Bilingual backers admit there are problems with the system.

But they argue that Unz’s initiative, known as “English for the Children,” forces schools into a “one size fits all” mindset that slaps a homogenous cure-all on a polyglot population.

“Curriculum by initiative is not the way to go,” says Holli Thier, spokeswoman for the anti-Proposition 227 campaign.

“You don’t throw out the baby with the bath water and Proposition 227 does that,” concurred Ms. Vazquez.

As a child of immigrant farmworkers, Ms. Vazquez recalls being a first-grader in the late 1960s in California’s Imperial Valley and seeing her older siblings have their mouths washed out with soap for speaking Spanish at school.

She retreated into silence, getting misclassified as mentally deficient.

As a parent, Ms. Vazquez chose to enroll her 9-year-old son, Camilo Quiroz, in a bilingual program to give him a sense of cultural identity and a multi-lingual edge.

Ms. Vazquez believes parents who don’t want their children in bilingual education should be able to withdraw without resistance from school officials. But she thinks wiping out the programs entirely will cut off help — and hope — to a vulnerable population.

“It’s an extreme approach, it’s a dishonest approach to addressing the very real needs that we have in the public education arena,” she said.

Those on the other side are equally convinced their opponents are chancing the future of California’s children.

Thirty years ago, Vega was happy to arrange bilingual education classes as a member of the Redwood City school board 30 years ago.

But he was dismayed when the program morphed into classes taught primarily in Spanish — and aghast when officials later tried to enroll his English-speaking grandson.

“Bilingual education has failed. It has failed throughout the state of California,” he said.

As the election nears, Shultz, author of “The Initiative Cookbook — Recipes and Stories from California’s Ballot Wars,” predicts the debate will be heavy on slogans, light on substance.

“That’s the problem with initiatives. As soon as you put an issue on the ballot you immediately end the possibility of rational conversation and you begin the process of political warfare. People divide into two camps and they throw rhetoric at one another.”

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