Educators discussing battle over California bilingual program

DALLAS – Bilingual education is in deep trouble in California, and thousands of educators throughout the nation are at the Dallas Convention Center this week to discuss saving the program.

“What’s happening in California could severely impact the rest of the nation,” said Shannon Verver Phelps, a third-grade bilingual education teacher at Bluebonnet Elementary School in Round Rock. “It’s a big step backwards and it’s going to have a negative effect on children and choices for parents.”

Phelps was one of about 7,000 bilingual educators, including 2,000 Texans, who gathered for the National Association for Bilingual Education’s 27th annual conference Thursday. It continues through Saturday.

What’s happening in California is political campaigning for a statewide vote on June 2 to end bilingual education, a label for the instruction of academic subjects in the native language of children that have limited English speaking skills until they are proficient in English.

One-time gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, a Republican millionaire who owns a software company, is backing an initiative that would mostly end the instruction of immigrant children in any language except English.

Unz has proposed replacing the bilingual education with a one- year English immersion program, which would place students with language needs in English-speaking classrooms and offer intensive English-language instruction.

Bilingual education researchers say it takes students seven years to attain a level of proficiency in a second language that would make students competitive in a mainstream classroom.

Unz, along with a motley patchwork coalition of conservative English-only advocates and allies among the assimilation camp of liberals, have been waging their campaign for nearly two years, first through the gathering of signatures to get the initiative on a special ballot in California and now through a savvy media blitz.

To date, Unz has spent $580,000 of his own money – out of a total $892,790 raised – on the initiative.

Representatives from the California Association for Bilingual Education were attending the conference to raise money to stave the attack.

So far, the “No On Unz” campaign, stationed in Los Angeles, has raised nearly $2 million.

The group, which had just begun gathering forces when Unz’s initiative received final approvals for balloting in November, is saving an all-out television counterattack closer to the date of the vote, said Maria Quezada, the state organization’s president.

So far, educators at the conference said, Unz’s assaults have been the most deadly in recent bilingual education history.

“This is the most serious attack, in my 20 years with the (national) association, though these sentiments have always been there,” said Josefina Villareal Tinajero, president of the national association’s board and assistant dean for the College of Education at the University of Texas at El Paso. She, like so many others at the conference, said she fears that the California initiative could spread like a virus throughout the nation.

“It has had devastating effects across the nation, with school districts rethinking local bilingual education policies,” she said. Officials in school districts in Fort Worth and Chicago are considering limiting bilingual education to three years.

“Ron Unz’s Proposition 227 does more than destroy bilingual education, It would perpetuate unspeakable damage upon the whole of society,” Villarreal Tinajero said during her Thursday morning address to conference-goers. “Everyone will be hurt if this initiative passes.”

Former Texas legislator Joe Bernal, who now represents San Antonio on the State Board of Education, said he felt bilingual education would be protected from legislative and political attacks.

The current majority of state legislators support bilingual education, he said. And Texas does not have a referendum process.

“I don’t fear an all-out attack,” he said. “It looks ugly in some parts, but I’m not too worried.”

Jose Angel Hernandez, assistant superintendent in charge of bilingual education for the Houston School District, said he was one of 300 attending a special workshop titled “English Only for the Children,” because he is worried.

“I want to be prepared,” Hernandez said. “I want to defend what we’ve worked hard to achieve in Houston.”

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