Santa Ana, Calif.

Teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman says bilingual education has failed thousands of California’s children.

Her 1st grade students don’t know it, but Gloria Matta Tuchman is a legend here at Taft Elementary School. "She is our resident saint," says the school’s receptionist. Colleagues speak of her in reverent tones. "We’re really supporting Gloria because the way she teaches is the only way," says fellow 1st grade teacher Jean Gross. "It’s the way we all teach here."

In large part because of Tuchman’s efforts, students at Taft who are not proficient in English are immersed in the language from the time they enter kindergarten. The method, used with about half the school’s 1,080 students, is called "sheltered English immersion." It’s a radical departure from the bilingual approach required–with some exceptions–by the state of California.

Tuchman wants to make her way the statewide way to teach English to non-native speakers. She has joined forces with a Silicon Valley millionaire in a nationally watched campaign to virtually ban bilingual education in California schools. Their proposed initiative promises to be as hotly debated as the ballot measures approved by state voters in recent years that targeted affirmative action and services for illegal immigrants.

In bilingual classes, students are taught core subjects in their primary language as they simultaneously learn to read and write in English. Ideally, students are fluent by 4th grade and can successfully move to English-only classes. But Tuchman says she is convinced that children are like sponges and that they can learn English in one year. "The earlier a child learns a new language, the better," she says. Tuchman has been using the immersion method for years to teach English to her mostly Spanish-speaking students. And not even a tough-talking administrator could persuade her to do otherwise.

In 1985, Taft’s principal told Tuchman that she had to start teaching bilingual education classes–or else. "’We’re out of sync with the rest of the district,’" she recalls him saying. "’We are not getting the funds that we should, and we are getting more limited-English-speaking students.’"

But Tuchman and three of her colleagues balked. "The children are learning English," Tuchman remembers telling the principal, "and our test scores reflect that we’re doing well."

The principal, she says, "got all ruffled and said, ‘It’s the law. And lady, if you don’t like the law, then you can change it.’"

It was, Tuchman says, the defining moment in her life.

She and the three other teachers were charged with insubordination. But when parents at the school rallied behind them, the principal backed down, and parents persuaded district officials to allow the immersion program to continue. Tuchman took her story to the news media, and an anti-bilingual-education activist was born.

Twelve years later, the principal is long gone and Taft Elementary is celebrated for its English-immersion program. Tuchman has dabbled in politics, become one of the most outspoken opponents of bilingual education in California, and has signed on as the co-chairwoman of the effort to make English immersion the law.

Gloria Matta Tuchman, Texas-born and of Mexican descent, is now known to some as "the poster teacher for the English-first movement in California." Others have called her a whole lot worse.

"Bilingual education deserves an F for failure to teach English," Tuchman contends, repeating one of her mantras. "It is one of California’s most devastating, scattershot, fiscally bloated, and ill-advised failures."

Not everyone agrees. Indeed, many educators argue that bilingual education, when properly implemented, is the best way to teach English to students who haven’t learned the language at home. But a backlash against the approach has been brewing, particularly in California, where, according to state figures, 1.4 million students–half of them in Los Angeles County–are considered not proficient in English.

Critics of bilingual education cite statistics showing that, in California, only about 6 percent of limited-English-proficient students each year become fluent in English. They also point out that Latino students have the lowest test scores of any ethnic group in the state and the highest dropout rate, a staggering 40 percent.

"Bilingual education deserves an F for failure to teach English."

Gloria Matta Tuchman Supporters of the approach are quick to point out that fewer than half of California’s Latino students are designated LEP and that not all such students are in bilingual classes. In fact, only 30 percent of the state’s LEP students are enrolled in programs that use native-language instruction. It isn’t fair, proponents say, to place all the blame on bilingual education.

The teaching method has become an easy target, however, in part because even its supporters admit that it doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. "Most researchers agree that children who begin their studies in a language they understand can transfer their scholastic skills to their new language," a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times noted. "Well-planned and -implemented bilingual education programs work. But the hodgepodge of approaches in California trap too many children far too long in classes taught in their primary language, mostly Spanish, before they move into mainstream English-only classes."

Last February, dozens of working-class Latino parents boycotted the Ninth Street Elementary School in Los Angeles for two weeks because they wanted their children taught in English, not Spanish. The parents prevailed, and critics of bilingual education cited the boycott as a glaring example of how unpopular the approach had become, even among Latinos.

Ron Unz, a 36-year-old millionaire who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor in 1994, flew to Los Angeles to meet with some of the Ninth Street School parents. Inspired by their resolve, he decided to help bankroll a ballot initiative that would virtually eliminate bilingual education. The English for the Children measure would require that all students in public schools be taught primarily in English unless their parents requested otherwise. Sheltered English immersion would become the law of the land in California. Teachers, administrators, or school board members who refused to offer students English-language instruction could be sued for damages.

Unz has raised about $500,000 for the English-immersion campaign–including more than $200,000 of his own money. The California Republican Party endorsed the initiative at its convention last September, but state GOP Chairman Michael Schroeder is lukewarm. "The Democrats are going to use this to call us racists all over again," he told U.S. News & World Report. "It’s the last thing we need right now."

Last spring, Unz, a theoretical physicist by training and the owner of Wall Street Analytics Inc., a Palo Alto-based financial-services software company, called Tuchman and asked for her help. The 55-year-old teacher was hesitant to sign on. She had spent years trying to persuade state legislators to do something about bilingual education, to no avail. She says she told Unz: "I will not work on something that is not going anywhere. If this is going to be overturned in court, I don’t want to waste my time."

But Unz convinced Tuchman that he meant business, and he told her that he wanted her input in drafting a final version of the initiative. Tuchman agreed, and she became the co-chairwoman of the campaign. More recently, nationally known math teacher Jaime Escalante signed up as honorary chairman.

In November, Unz and Tuchman held a news conference in Los Angeles to announce that they had collected more than 700,000 signatures in support of the initiative. And late last month, Bill Jones, the California secretary of state, announced that at least 510,000 of those signatures were from registered voters; 433,269 were needed to get the measure on the ballot in June.

Unz is confident that the initiative will be voted into law. "I think the odds are very high that we’ll win," he says.

If the early opinion polls are any indication, Unz may be right. According to an October Los Angeles Times survey, 80 percent of California voters supported the initiative. Among Latino voters, 84 percent said they favored the measure. Supporters have used the poll to bolster their argument that bilingual education has very little support, even among people it was meant to serve.

A Field Poll released last month showed lesser, but still big, majorities supporting the proposal. The poll found that 69 percent of California voters, including 66 percent of Latinos, said they would vote for the measure.

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