Foes of Bilingual Education Encounter Hostile Crowd at UC Berkeley

Facing a hostile, hissing audience at the University of California at Berkeley last night, leaders of a campaign to wipe out bilingual education attacked the statewide program as a “dismal failure” that keeps Latinos down.

Maintaining a broad smile even as hecklers shouted “liar,” Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz skillfully avoided addressing details of his anti-bilingual initiative, which seems headed for the June ballot. “Many parents have told me that bilingual education is Spanish-only education,” Unz said, noting that he is a longtime skeptic of teaching methods used to educate non-English-speaking students.

His comments came during a debate over bilingual education at the university’s Boalt Hall School of Law, sponsored by the Chicano/Latino Policy Project.

Joining Unz was Fernando Vega, a Redwood City grandfather who related his family’s unhappy experiences with bilingual education. Such anecdotes have been a central campaign strategy of the initiative.

Details of the initiative were hammered at by Eugene Garcia, dean of the Graduate School of Education, and by Martha Jimenez, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“This is a policing mechanism that does serious harm,” said Garcia, also the former bilingual education director in the Clinton administration. Children placed in English-only classes “have a 400 percent greater chance of being placed in a class for the learning disabled within a few years. And that’s harm,” Garcia said.

Jimenez pointed to a portion of the initiative that would allow parents to sue a school district and any teacher, principal or school board member who did not teach solely in English.

She called it a “dangerous, one-size-fits-all” approach.

Last night, the audience spilled out onto the sidewalk, with dozens of angry students chanting, “Racists out, students in! Bilingual’s gonna win!”

Their anger reflected the intensity inside the auditorium where no one in the audience spoke in favor of the initiative. Instead, Unz and Vega were heckled and booed.

The initiative has taken center stage in this year’s political landscape, and is often compared to Proposition 209, the initiative to end preferences in state contracts, hiring and education, and the previous year’s Proposition 187 on immigration.

The initiative backers have collected “hundreds of thousands of signatures” above the 433,000 it needs to qualify for the June ballot, said campaign coordinator Jon Fleischman.

Calling English the “national public language” of the United States, the initiative holds government to a “moral obligation” to make children literate in English.

Here are key features of the initiative:

— For up to one year, immigrant children under age 10 would be placed in “English language classrooms” of intense language instruction taught in English.

— Immigrant parents who do not want their children in such classes would need to apply annually in person for a waiver, first hearing a presentation of the program. Waivers would be granted only to children who already know English, who are older than 10, or who have “special needs” determined by school staff.

— Bilingual instruction would be offered only if 20 parents received a waiver at any school.

— Each year, $50 million from state coffers would pay for English lessons for immigrant adults who promise to tutor children in English.

— Schools that did not provide the English-only classes could be liable for attorneys fees and “actual damages.” Teachers, administrators and school board members could also be held personally liable.

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