California, where one in four school children speaks little or no English, is mulling a new idea: Drop bilingual education.

In a state with a ballooning immigrant population, and open wounds from an anti-immigrant initiative three years ago, the prospect is getting some of its strongest support from — of all people — immigrants. “You need English here,” explains Juana Jacobo, who dyes blue jeans for a living and successfully petitioned to take her Spanish-speaking children out of a bilingual program at their Los Angeles elementary school. “They can’t get a job if they don’t speak English,” she says.

But Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who runs a community center for Hispanics in Los Angeles and describes herself as “left of left on the issues,” contends that children taught in Spanish never master English. As a result, they are consigned to a lifetime of second-rate jobs. “It’s all over for them before they even have a chance,” she says.

Two years ago, Ms. Callaghan helped Hispanic parents boycott their local elementary school until authorities agreed to allow their children to be taught in English. The boycott attracted the attention of Mr. Unz, who says he met with the parents “to see if the stories were accurate,” and then agreed to fund a voter initiative on dismantling bilingual education.

Mr. Unz, who describes himself as a libertarian conservative, is a physicist-turned-software entrepreneur. In 1994, he opposed Gov. Pete Wilson in the California Republican primary, and then campaigned vigorously against a measure, endorsed by the GOP, to deny benefits to illegal immigrants.

Mr. Unz’s plan wouldn’t end so-called ESL, or English as a Second Language, programs, which give special instruction to children with limited English. But it isn’t clear whether ending bilingual programs and instead putting children in English-immersion classes would help or hurt them, despite decades of government studies. “People can interpret the results according to their predetermined preferences,” Harvard’s Ms. Snow says.

She predicts that, because California’s limited-English speakers generally are poor and attend some of its worst schools, they will founder. “They will end up with poorer literacy skills and more disaffected from society than they are now,” she insists.

Discomfort for Both Parties

Although a recent poll by the San Francisco-based Field Institute found 62% of Democrats and 76% of Republicans supporting the initiative, it puts both parties in an awkward spot. Republicans have been courting Hispanic voters since Latinos deserted them in the 1996 elections, and they are fearful of supporting anything that might portray the party as anti-Latino.

In particular, Republicans are eager to heal wounds opened by the bitterly contested 1996 House race in which Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez narrowly defeated conservative Orange County Republican Robert Dornan. He claimed the election was stolen from him because unqualified Hispanic voters cast ballots. He has never conceded, and many Hispanics are still fuming at both him and the Republicans.

For their part, Democrats risk angering parts of their constituency that favor bilingual education. The idea has support in the party’s liberal wing and among teachers, many of whom receive bonuses for teaching bilingual classes. Hispanic leaders and activists are in an even more vexing bind: Although they largely oppose the initiative because it would so overwhelmingly affect Spanish speakers, two-thirds of Hispanics polled said they would vote for it.

California’s long history of voter initiatives suggests that while most start out popular, only about 40% ever succeed. Mr. Unz says he worries less that his initiative will win than “how it will win.” Indeed, both parties already are charging that the other will “demagogue the issue.”

That prospect baffles Ms. Jacobo, a Mexican immigrant who shares a two-room apartment with her husband and six children. “This is about English and getting a job,” she says.

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