Drive Against Bilingual Classes Ready for Ballot

Backers claim enough signatures for initiative

A wealthy Silicon Valley software executive who has led a campaign to place an anti-bilingual education measure on the June ballot said yesterday that he has submitted more than 700,000 signatures — well beyond the 433,269 required to qualify.

Although the signatures must be verified by county clerks across the state, backers of the measure said they are confident of approval.

“We’re very excited,” said entrepreneur Ron Unz. “This will provide the option of an English- language education to all children in California.”

The measure would replace the bilingual education programs now offered to 30 percent of California’s 1.3 million limited-English- speaking students with one year of intensive English instruction, during which other academic programs would be on hold.

Opponents compare the plan to Propositions 187 and 209 — which ended many services to illegal immigrants and ruled out granting of preferences in education, hiring and contracts — saying the end of bilingual education would complete an election-year trilogy of systemic attacks on immigrants and nonwhites.

“It’s divisiveness du jour,” said attorney Martha Jimenez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in San Francisco.

Since beginning the campaign in July, proponents have avoided focusing on details of the proposed initiative. Instead, they are tapping into widespread dissatisfaction among parents — many of them immigrants — with how bilingual education is carried out in public schools.

Opponents, on the other hand, want voters to look at the initiative itself.

Here are key features of the proposal, which would become part of the state Education Code:

— For as long as one year, immigrant children under age 10 would be placed in “English language classrooms” of intense language instruction taught in English.

— Schools that did not provide the English-only classes could be subject to lawsuits by parents and liable for attorney fees and damages. Teachers, administrators and school board members also could be held personally liable.

— Immigrant parents who do not want their children in such classes and who prefer a bilingual program that includes classes in math, social studies and other academic subjects, would need to apply annually — in person — for a waiver.

— Waivers would be granted only to children who already know English, who are older than 10 or who have “special needs” as determined by school staff.

— Bilingual instruction would be offered only if 20 parents of children in the same grade level in the same school received a waiver.

— Each year, $50 million from state coffers would pay for English lessons for immigrant adults who promise to tutor children in English.

Joining Unz in backing the initiative is well-known calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, inspiration for the 1987 movie “Stand and Deliver.” Other prominent backers include the state Republican Party and members of past campaigns to make English the nation’s official language.

Yet, not all prominent conservatives are standing with Unz, who challenged Governor Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary.

Wilson, who is no friend of Unz, has no immediate plans to endorse the measure, said his press secretary, Sean Walsh.

“He has not talked to his staff about it, nor has Mr. Unz scampered up to Sacramento to talk about it,” Walsh said.

Unz did not get the political initiative news all to himself.

While Unz appeared at a press conference in Los Angeles, Wilson was at a press conference in Sacramento to announce that backers of another measure — to curb the political power of organized labor — had gathered enough signatures to assure its placement on the June ballot.

Walsh said the timing of the two events was a coincidence.

Meanwhile, legal experts who have been watching the movement of the Unz initiative say it is likely to run afoul of federal civil rights laws.

“Federal law is supreme under our legal system,” said attorney Peter Roos, co-director of Multicultural, Educational & Training Advocacy, a legal rights group in San Francisco and Boston.

He and other opponents say the Unz initiative could violate the 1974 Equal Educational Opportunities Act — the basis of federal bilingual education laws requiring equal access to academics for all students.

To withhold academic instruction from students for as long as a year under penalty of a lawsuit violates that law, opponents say.

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