LOS ANGELES — Tony Velasquez doesn’t much like school these days. The homework confuses him, and his mother says he doesn’t always know what language he is supposed to be reading, writing, and studying.
Tony, 7, is fluent in English and Spanish. But when second grade started Aug. 12, he was assigned to a class for Spanish speakers at his elementary school for the second year in a row — both times against his parents’ wishes.
“We watch English television. We read English newspapers. I buy him comic books in English, and all the books I take out from the library for him are in English,” said Ericka Velasquez, who like her son was born in the United States. “If he has trouble reading, they should deal with that in English. I’m his parent, and I know what’s best for him.”
Twenty-five years after Mexican-Americans fought for Spanish in the classroom, an unlikely coalition of Latinos, leftists, and conservatives wants to do away with “bilingual” instruction unless parents specifically request it for their children. Their statewide initiative, called English for the Children, is slated for next June’s ballot, and it promises another heated political debate among Californians.
An angry Velasquez recently signed on.
Opponents call the initiative another anti-immigrant effort, sold on a premise that no one rebuts: All schoolchildren should become proficient in English. Conceding that many of California’s bilingual programs are failing youngsters, they say the courses should be reformed, not eradicated.
“It is easier to do away with it than to fix it,” said Theresa Bustillos, vice president of legal programs at the Mexican-American Defense and Educational Fund. “It’s an extreme version of sink or swim.”
Supporters of the measure counter that children must be immersed in English if they hope to succeed in the United States. They blame bilingual education for the 50 percent dropout rate among Hispanic children in California, and say that even those students who earn high school diplomas are too often illiterate in English. The initiative proposes one year of English immersion before students are mainstreamed.
“Parents do not want their children working in sweatshops or cleaning downtown office buildings when they grow up,” said Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and director of the Las Familias del Pueblo community center. “They want them to get into Harvard and Stanford, and that won’t happen unless they are truly fluent and literate in English.”
Callaghan and the Mexican families she works with unintentionally helped launch the movement last year when they insisted their children be taught in English and pulled them out of classes when the school refused. Two weeks later, they prevailed.
The boycott, in an impoverished part of Los Angeles, caught the attention of Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley multimillionaire who says he has long believed that bilingual education hampers English literacy. Unz wrote the initiative and has put $100,000 into the cause.
Despite Unz’s strong Republican ties, few party leaders have publicly joined in the fight against bilingual education. He says they fear alienating a fast-growing base of voters even further. Neither have Hispanic politicians. But Unz says many have privately told him they consider the programs misguided.
“My goal is to have this pass overwhelmingly with the votes of all the different ethnic groups, native born and immigrants,” said Unz, who opposed the anti-illegal-immigrant Proposition 187.
Added Gloria Matta Tuchman, a veteran Santa Ana teacher of Mexican descent who has won awards for teaching in English and who has become the campaign’s public face: “This is not about English only. This is about English literacy. It’s time we do this, and it’s what the parents want.”
Not all parents want their children schooled in English. While a Los Angeles Times poll showed that 83 percent of Hispanic parents in Orange County favor English instruction from the outset, for instance, hundreds of parents protested when the Orange Unified School District decided to end bilingual education this school year. In response to their lawsuit, a judge issued a restraining order that has forced the district to continue bilingual education even though Superintendent Robert French said most of his bilingual teachers have left for other jobs.
Educators around the state are monitoring Orange Unified’s challenge to native-language instruction for students not fluent in English. With about 1.3 million schoolchildren attending bilingual classes — 23 percent of the total — California spends more than $320 million a year on programs for them.
“It’s important to understand that Orange’s bilingual program, like all bilingual programs, is voluntary,” said Peter Roos, codirector of Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy Inc. and one of the lead lawyers in the lawsuit. “What they’ve done is remove the choice of these parents.”
Parents can request that their children be taught in English, although many say their requests are ignored. English for the Children would in effect reverse that policy: Parents would have to ask for bilingual instruction.
In the meantime, some parents worry that their children are languishing in bilingual classes, which they say are not the same as English-as-a-second-language instruction because they emphasize Spanish. Initiative supporters cite statistics showing that just 5 percent of students in bilingual programs are found to be proficient in English each year — a 95 percent failure rate. Opponents, however, call those figures misleading because they include students enrolled in ESL classes and students just entering bilingual programs.
Gabriel Medel, first vice chairman of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Bilingual Advisory Committee, said the issue is teaching children to learn, regardless of the language they are taught in. Both his sons received bilingual instruction, one for more than four years, the other for three.
“For us, the primary purpose is for them to learn English,” Medel said. “But at the same time they are learning English, no matter how long it takes, they need to be learning the academics, too.”
But Fernando Vega, who helped bring bilingual instruction to Redwood City in northern California in the early 1970s, has come to believe that English is more essential than any other language. He said his grandson, raised in an English-speaking home, was assigned to bilingual classes because his elementary school offered none in English. The only options were to transfer to a school outside the neighborhood or enroll in private school.
“It’s not even bilingual education. It’s Spanish immersion,” Vega said. “It’s an affront to tell us our children can’t learn English. And there’s nothing more immigrant-bashing than denying an education to these kids generation after generation.”