BERKELEY — The founder of the proposed “English only” state initiative clashed repeatedly with the chairman of a University of California Latino task force during a debate Tuesday night.
But this time, the groundswell of support firing the campaign by wealthy Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz to put the initiative on the June ballot was missing.
Most of the cheers from the heavily Latino-student crowd of well over 350 spectators who crammed UC-Berkeley’s Booth Auditorium were for Eugene Garcia, dean of UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education who heads a task force to bring Latinos to the university.
A Los Angles Times poll last week showed that 84 percent of all Latino voters and 80 percent of white voters support the initiative, which would require the public schools to teach only in English. But Garcia predicted that when the facts are known, opinions will change.
Unz said he launched the initiative after learning last year that immigrant parents had to stage a boycott to force Ninth Street Elementary in Los Angeles to remove their children from English as a second language classes and put them in classes where only English was taught.
“They wanted their children to learn English, not Spanish, and the record of children in English as a second language classes in California is dismal,” Unz said. “Children in some of those classes speak only Spanish. Statewide, California has a dreadful record with non-English speakers. Only 5 percent of students in the English as a second language classes learn English.”
Garcia — who said he grew up poor in a Latino family of 10 in Grand Junction, Colo. — believes the problem is one of racism and segregation, not Spanish-English classes.
When his sister Ciprinita went to school, the teacher said she could never pronounce the girl’s name. “She said, ‘I’ll call you Elsie,’ and she did,” he recalled.
“That’s still her name, Elsie,” Garcia said. “But she cries when anyone brings up the story, and she dropped out of school in the fifth grade. The issue is tracking students and discrimination, not English.”
He says the Unz initiative has no safeguards and will simply mean that many of the 1.3 million California schoolchildren who speak a native language other than English will simply be tracked and segregated into inferior classes.
Barely 25 percent of non-English speaking students are in bilingual classes, Garcia said. “Let’s make them work, not ban them,” he said.
Unz was joined by Fernando Vega of Redwood City, who told a story similar to Garcia’s. But in the case of his son, Vega said, he had to fight to persuade Sequoia High School to let him take college preparatory classes.
Latino students in Tuesday’s audience were unimpressed. “I’m a product of bilingual classes in Pasadena and now I’m a graduate student at UC-Berkeley,” said Blanca Gordo. “Without the help I got in grade school and the 7th grade I wouldn’t be here.”