SACRAMENTO — A coalition of education groups denounced on Tuesday an initiative to dismantle bilingual education in California as an ill-conceived measure that would make an experiment out of teaching English to 1.3 million children.

Organizers said the initiative, backed by businessman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, would unfairly limit students to a year of special instruction — too little time to learn enough English to succeed in a regular classroom.

“One year, that’s it. And if they need extra help, too bad,” said Laurie Olsen, co-chairwoman of the campaign against the measure. “This isn’t even sink or swim, this is drown or doggie paddle.”

The “English for the Children” initiative would discard the state’s emphasis on teaching students who don’t speak English in their native language, usually Spanish. Instead, students would be temporarily placed in classes designed for those new to the language, but taught mostly in English.

Early polls have found strong support for the initiative among voters — including many Latinos — who have become increasingly skeptical about the success of bilingual-education programs.

Though the programs have been in place in the state for more than 20 years, California still faces a chronic shortage of bilingual teachers. High dropout rates and low test scores among Latino students, who make up 80 percent of the state’s non-English speaking students, have fueled criticism of the programs as well.

Numerous attempts to reform the program have stalled in the Legislature. At a news conference Tuesday in Sacramento, education leaders acknowledged they disagree among themselves about how to change the program.

But they were unanimous in the view that Unz’s initiative is not the answer.

“We do believe the current system needs reform,” said David Sanchez, board member of the California Teachers Association. “The Unz initiative is not reasonable reform.”

Opponents claimed the initiative would require putting students who don’t speak English in one classroom, regardless of differences in ages, cultural backgrounds and academic abilities. They also claimed the measure would make it difficult for parents to choose a traditional bilingual program.

But proponents said the initiative merely would allow students of different ages to be placed together, not require it. They also claimed opponents were merely looking out for themselves by stretching bilingual programs out.

“The idea that it takes a student five to seven years to acquire a new language is just unreasonable,” said Sheri Annis, a campaign spokeswoman.

Annis said she found it interesting that teachers unions were among those pledging to lead the fight against the measure. Proponents have seen strong support from rank and file teachers, she said.

“We have received many calls from teachers who are pleased someone is trying to do this,” Annis said. “They are supporting our initiative because they have felt powerless in the past.”

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