On national television Friday, Fresno Unified Superintendent Carlos Garcia told Proposition 227 co-author Ron Unz that his initiative is an oversimplified alternative to the state’s battered bilingual education system.

But Unz said the system can’t be defended, and that’s the reason he proposed the plan Californians will vote on Tuesday.

Garcia and Unz appeared on Talkback Live, a Cable News Network program based in Atlanta.

Garcia – the head of the state’s fourth-largest school district – appeared on the program via satellite from CNN’s studio in Los Angeles. Unz appeared from San Francisco.

For Californians, the issue is how best to teach the state’s 1.4 million limited-English speaking students. But it was no accident that the cable news giant gave the state’s bilingual education debate such prominence: Several states with high numbers of limited-English speaking students are watching California closely.

A Silicon Valley millionaire who once aspired to be governor, Unz is proposing a one-year crash course in English for virtually all limited-English speaking students.

“Once the student has learned enough English well enough to do regular school work, they are put in a regular classroom,” Unz explained.

Garcia rapidly took issue with Unz’s assertions.

“Mr. Unz believes that bilingual education programs are not for teaching children English, and he is absolutely wrong,” Garcia said. “In Fresno Unified, our priority for every child is to get them to master the language as quickly as possible.”

Garcia went on to say that the one year’s worth of support proposed by the initiative isn’t enough time for students to be able to read, write and speak English.

“There are some students who can learn in one year, but it is ridiculous to say that most students will be able to that,” Garcia said. “Especially when it comes to academic language.”

Garcia, a former bilingual teacher, explained that it takes students several years before they can learn another language well enough to be able to read and understand textbooks.

Also on the program was Alice Callaghan, a Los Angeles activist partially responsible for sparking bilingual education reform, and Jaime Zapata of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Moderating the discussion was CNN anchorwoman Bobbie Battista.

As Battista took questions from the audience and via electronic mail, it became apparent that the polarization the initiative is causing in California is also evident across the nation.

One piece of e-mail appearing on the television screen read: “Immigrants should be required to speak English before being allowed to immigrate.”

Callaghan, who works with Mexican immigrant garment workers in Los Angeles, said parents are after one thing: a better future for their children.

“The parents I work with want their children to learn English. They know that without the ability to read, write and speak English, they have no future,” she said.

Zapata, a bilingual education advocate, said his mother also wanted the same for him. But she found the answer in bilingual education.

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