Criticism swift for bilingual initiative

Educators respond: Plan called a one-size-fits-all formula with no common sense.

A state initiative that would essentially end bilingual education isn’t winning many fans among local educators.

Most say the initiative would only hurt the one in five Ventura County children with limited English skills.

“I really think that this one-size-fits-all philosophy, that every child is the same so they all need the same program, just doesn’t fit,” said Jane Kampbell, assistant superintendent of the Fillmore Unified School District, where 41 percent of pupils have limited English skills.

Added Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education: “The real issue is that students will not have access to schooling in a manner they can understand. Therefore, they will not get a quality education.”

The initiative would require that public schools teach all children in English. Children not fluent in English could spend up to one year in intensive English immersion programs.

Parents could apply for a waiver if they show their child already knows English, has special needs or would learn English faster through an alternative program.

The initiative is sponsored by Ron Unz, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate, and Gloria Matta Tuchman, a former state superintendent candidate. They have until Dec. 1 to gather 433,269 valid signatures to put the measure on the June 1998 ballot.

The initiative’s backers say immigrant education in California is a total failure and that each year just 5 percent of children with limited English become proficient.

They also cite a survey by the Center for Equal Opportunity that showed that, by a 4-1 margin, Latinos wanted their children to learn English as soon as possible, instead of learning Spanish first.

Statewide, 24 percent of public school children have limited English skills. In Ventura County, most bilingual students are in Oxnard, Fillmore, Somis and Santa Paula. Communities lying east of the Conejo Grade have the smallest concentration.

The initiative would have the biggest effect on the Oxnard School District, where half of the students have limited English skills.

Without bilingual education, children who need it will only fall behind in school and be unprepared for the work force, said Francisco Dominguez, an Oxnard trustee. He and other initiative opponents view it as yet another anti- immigrant proposal on the heels of Propositions 187 and 209 — although supporters say that’s not the case.

Joanne O’Brien, a bilingual teacher at Harrington School in Oxnard, said she doesn’t want to tamper with a program she supports 100 percent.

“We have tremendous success with our students,” O’Brien said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like under the other scenario. The children just wouldn’t have the chance to develop basic language skills.”

Even officials in school districts that don’t offer bilingual education say the decision should be made locally.

“I think districts should have options, and I don’t think you should be forced to do anything with respect to bilingual education,” said Jerry Gross, superintendent of the Conejo Valley Unified School District.

Just 7 percent of the district’s children have limited English skills. The district’s test scores are high enough that it doesn’t have to offer bilingual education, although bilingual students do get extra help.

But some Ventura County residents say they’d vote for the initiative.

Ron Lyons, a Thousand Oaks technical writer, said he believes children will learn quickly if immersed in English.

Under bilingual education, “I think what we’re doing here is not giving the child a leg up as much as possible at an early age,” he said.

While initiative backers are hitting the streets with petitions, the Legislature is considering a bill that would reform bilingual education but not dismantle it.

SB6, sponsored by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos, would let school districts design their own plans for teaching bilingual students.

That’s an approach some favor more.

Elaine Hunt, a retired resource specialist for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said she believes reform is needed. “You can’t just throw things out,” she said.

“I would support this bill over an initiative because I feel that the Legislature can work it out in such a way that the constitutionality would not be in question, and it would be the best for the children of California.”

Comments are closed.