Debate speaks volumes on English-only ballot initiative

More than 100 people gathered at Stanford University on Friday to watch Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz square off against opponents of his ballot initiative, which would scrap bilingual education in California public schools.

The three-hour discussion was just one in a series of ongoing debates over the best way to educate the 1.4 million students who speak little or no English.

The English for the Children initiative, slated for the June 2 ballot, would require that all public school instruction be conducted in English except when parents specifically ask for education in their native language. Children who come to school speaking little or no English would spend their first year in a “sheltered English-immersion class” before being placed in English-only classrooms.

The measure is sponsored by Unz and elementary school teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman.

Joining in Friday’s discussion were:

  • Fernando Vega, a Hispanic activist from Redwood City, who is the Peninsula chairman of Unz’s campaign.

  • Kelly Hayes-Raitt, director of Citizens for an Educated America: No on Unz.

  • Martin Carnoy, a professor of education at Stanford University.

  • Henry Der, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the California Department of Education.

  • Patricia Gandara, professor of education at UC-Davis.

While the panelists agreed that bilingual education programs need fixing, they did not agree on the best way to do so.

Unz seemed confident and unfazed as he faced a crowd filled with skeptics. At times, the audience booed or hissed as the Silicon Valley businessman made his case.

“Today in California, bilingual education is a dismal failure,” he said. “The theory behind bilingual education is nuts. And in about four months, we’re going to be able to get rid of it.”

Unz chided legislators and educators for moving too slowly to fix programs for children who speak little or no English.

He cited polls that indicate widespread support for his measure, especially among Latinos, the group likely to be most effected by changes in bilingual programs. The majority of students who speak little or no English speak Spanish as their first language.

For their part, those who oppose Unz’s initiative criticized the former Republican gubernatorial candidate for being shortsighted. And they criticized him for attempting to dictate educational policy best left to local educators and school boards.

“There are a lot of ways to go about fixing bilingual programs, but Ron Unz’s initiative is the wrong fix,” Hayes-Raitt said. “Do we want a blanket one-size-fits-all program? I don’t think so.”

Added Carnoy: “You’re after the wrong horse. You’re beating the wrong horse.”

Carnoy and UC-Davis professor Gandara argued that it’s wrong to blame only bilingual education for high dropout rates and low achievement among non-English speaking children. They pointed to a number of other factors that determine how well a child will do in school.

Many limited-English-speaking children come from poor families and tend to change schools more often than students from families in higher income brackets.

But Unz remained unconvinced.

“What we have here is a well-intentioned policy that simply doesn’t work,” he said.

The panel was part of a day-long “California Summit on Race in America,” sponsored by Stanford Unversity’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. The day’s events also included sessions on the effect of propositions 187 and 209.

Asked afterward, attendants said that while they learned a great deal during the three-hour session, it didn’t really change their viewpoints. John Clarke, a student at De Anza College, said he was willing to listen to Unz’s arguments but still thinks bilingual education should stay in California’s public schools.

“I think to eliminate bilingual education would be a bad thing,” he said.

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