A campaign to end bilingual education in California was being launched inside a skid row day-care center Tuesday morning, but the phalanx of television cameras did not interrupt Jose Negrete’s construction of an intricate Lego pirate cove.

As former gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz and English-only teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman described their quest for a spring 1998 statewide initiative–which was cleared last week by the state attorney general, enabling a signature drive to begin today–the 10-year-old sorted through a peg-legged pirate, a skeleton, a treasure chest and, of course, the plank.

Although Jose was oblivious to the speechmaking, he was actually an inspiration for the initiative, as one of 80 Spanish-speaking children held out of Ninth Street School by their parents last year after administrators refused to move them into all-English classes.

The Times’ coverage of the two-week boycott piqued the interest of software entrepreneur Unz, who decided to renew his fight against bilingual education. “Our initiative ensures that the parents get their wish,” Unz said.

Jose’s role in what could become a historic moment in California education began in February 1996, when he was a third-grader in a bilingual class, taught mostly in Spanish. Thanks to the boycott, by September he was attending a fourth-grade class taught entirely in English.

“At first, I didn’t understand what the teacher was telling me,” he said in clear but accented English.

Was it scary? “Yes. Then I started learning, little by little.”

The value of English is crystal clear to Jose. “When you get big, if you go to work and they talk to you in English and you don’t understand them, they can fire you.”

Now, a quarter of California’s public school students are eligible for bilingual classes. Nearly half the Los Angeles Unified School District students are eligible.

Dubbed “English for the Children,” Unz’s initiative would require that all public school instruction be conducted in English unless a parent can prove a child would learn faster through an alternative–possibly bilingual–technique. Under current state laws, roughly the opposite is true: non-English-speaking children are to be placed in some form of bilingual education unless parents request English-only instruction.

The initiative provides for one year of immersion in English before students are mainstreamed.

Unz said his proposal was prompted by public opinion polls showing that Latino parents want their children in English-only programs and by statistics indicating that bilingual programs graduate only 5% of their children annually into regular classes. “That’s a 95% failure rate,” he said.

Bilingual advocates, poised to battle the measure, say Unz has misinterpreted the data. The 5% “transition rate” is based on all bilingual education students, most of whom are only beginning a three- to seven-year transition to all-English classes.

The impact on bilingual students could be devastating, said Joseph Jaramillo, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It would send many California schools into crisis because they would be stripped of the very tools necessary to bring children into the mainstream.”

MALDEF is watching the initiative carefully, Jaramillo said, because of its potential for tapping into the same immigrant-bashing that helped pass Proposition 187.

But Republican Unz, who opposed bilingual education when he ran against Gov. Pete Wilson in the primary in 1994, said he wants to avoid becoming another magnet for anti-immigrant rage. He notes that he campaigned against Proposition 187 and that some conservatives already have distanced themselves >from his initiative because it would add $50 million a year to programs that teach English to adults interested in becoming English tutors.

Unz sought out Matta Tuchman to lend classroom reality to his campaign. Matta Tuchman has long opposed bilingual education and teaches an English immersion first-grade class in Santa Ana.

She has challenged bilingual education for decades but had virtually sworn off spending time on the cause until she received Unz’s phone call. “After a while you feel like a broken record,” she said. “Isn’t anybody listening?”

Comments are closed.