English education initiative advances

Petitions: Signatures supporting fight against bilingual education submitted.

A campaign to eliminate bilingual education in California surged forward Thursday as Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz began submitting the signatures needed to qualify his “English for the Children” initiative for the June 1998 ballot.

At a media event in Los Angeles, Unz said he delivered petitions with nearly 300,000 signatures to the Los Angeles County registrar of voters. Unz’s campaign plans to repeat the process around the state over the next few days as he tries to place the controversial bilingual education issue before voters.

The onetime Republican candidate for governor said he has collected 723,000 signatures over the past few months, far more than the 433,000 needed to qualify for the spring ballot.

If the initiative is approved by voters, all public school instruction would be conducted in English except when parents specifically ask for education in their home language. Children who come to school speaking little or no English would spend their first year in what Unz calls “a sheltered English-immersion class.”

Unz says the initiative is necessary because the current bilingual education system — which encourages instruction in a student’s native language — is turning out children who cannot function in an English-dominant society. About a third of the 1.4 million California students who come to school speaking little or no English are placed in bilingual education classes.

Campaign officials say the initiative has support from a wide spectrum of voters, including conservatives and immigrant families who have had negative experiences with bilingual education.

“The people most excited by our initiative have been the people most affected by bilingual education,” campaign manager Jon Fleischman said. “The most energy has come from the people it has most failed.”

Several groups have already come out against the initiative, including the California Association for Bilingual Education, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the California Teachers Association.

Representatives from some of those organizations have formed a political action committee — called Citizens for an Educated America: No on Unz — to mount a counter campaign.

Opponents say the initiative would rob schools of local control and ensure that children with limited English skills fall behind in their academic subjects.

“What the Unz initiative will do is ignore decades of research into how language acquisition works and replace it with a one-size-fits-all program,” said Martha Jimenez, staff attorney with MALDEF. “It doesn’t improve education. It will make it worse.”

The California Republican Party endorsed the initiative at its September convention. And Latino teacher Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver” movie fame is one of its prominent backers.

Most observers — even Unz’s staunchest opponents — expect the initiative to qualify for the ballot.

County registrars will now verify whether the petition signatures are >from registered voters and then report their results to the Secretary of State’s office. State officials said it could take two to three months to verify whether the measure has qualified for the ballot.

“We’ve completed one phase,” Unz said. “Now we are moving forward in terms of winning the election and eliminating bilingual education entirely.”

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