LOS ANGELES–Aiming for a showdown vote in June, critics of bilingual education on Thursday turned in the first batch of voter signatures needed for a statewide measure that would require all-English instruction in classrooms.
“We’re advocating common sense,” said Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who is leading the campaign. “We’re advocating teaching English to the children as quickly as possible when they start school.”
Unz, speaking at a news conference in downtown Los Angeles with his co-sponsor, Orange County teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, displayed more than a dozen cartons of petitions that were later handed to the Los Angeles County registrar of voters for verification.
In coming days, the “English for the Children” campaign will turn in more signatures at county offices across the state. Unz claimed to have more than 700,000 in hand.
The proposal, which has drawn national notice, needs 433,269 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Its foes concede that Unz is likely to reach that total because he has dipped into his own pocket to pay petition circulators.
But bilingual education advocates say Unz is grossly misleading the public about the complicated process of second-language learning, and they promise a strong effort to defeat the initiative.
“How truthful are those signatures when people have been told, ‘Do you want your children to learn English?’ Who wouldn’t sign that?” asked Maria S. Quezada, president of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education. “I think that’s fraudulent. It’s based on very false misconceptions and representations of the program.”
The proposal targets the teaching of about 1.4 million children in public schools who are not proficient in English. Those youngsters account for about a fourth of the state’s students. Most speak Spanish. But only three out of 10 are taught in their native language, in part because of a shortage of qualified teachers.
If approved by voters, the initiative would require virtually all classroom instruction to be in English, with limited exceptions for parents who petition school officials. Children who are not fluent would get about a year of special help in English, then move into mainstream classes.
The initiative would hold teachers and school officials liable for violating its provisions. The proposal also calls for the state to spend $50 million a year to tutor adults in English.
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Many Californians seem receptive to the proposal on first read. A recent Los Angeles Times poll found overwhelming support among registered voters for a proposed all-English teaching requirement.
But foes of the initiative, who say they have formed a political committee called Citizens for an Educated America, contend that those numbers will turn around when voters learn more. They say many children need help in their home language to avoid falling behind in other subjects while they learn English.
“It’s an extreme initiative,” said James Crawford, an education writer who is a consultant for the National Assn. for Bilingual Education in Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t try to reform bilingual ed, or fix bilingual ed, or do anything in a moderate way.”
Unz and Matta Tuchman, a first-grade teacher in Santa Ana and a longtime English-first activist, said they support bilingualism but not bilingual education. They held their news conference at Las Familias del Pueblo community center, which in 1996 was the scene of a much-publicized boycott of bilingual education when parents from a nearby school demanded that their children be taught in English.
One of those parents Thursday morning helped the campaign leaders load the boxes of petitions into a sedan bound for the county registrar.
“I want my children to learn English well, to learn to read, write and speak,” said Luisa Martinon, 27, speaking in Spanish. “Because someday maybe they’ll be able to find a career or go to the university. Without English, they won’t.”
Bilingual education supporters insist that their goal, too, is English fluency for all. Whether they will be able to get that message across depends on how much money they can gather for radio and TV advertisements.
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Unz has raised more than $470,000 to support the initiative, state records show, including $270,000 he personally loaned to the campaign. His backers include Fieldstead & Co., an Irvine group linked to Christian conservative causes, which gave $48,000; economist Milton Friedman, who gave $1,000; Jacobs Engineering Group of Pasadena, which gave $10,000; and Florida businessmen Harry Teasley and William A. Dunn, who gave $25,000 each.
The deadline to turn in all signatures is Dec. 1. California Secretary of State Bill Jones is expected to announce by Jan. 22 whether the initiative qualifies for the June ballot.