LOS ANGELES–First, California voters did away with benefits to illegal immigrants. Then they got rid of affirmative action. Now, in what is rapidly emerging as the brand-name ballot issue for 1998, bilingual education may meet its end. Last week, petitions were filed for English for the Children, a ballot measure sponsored by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz that would virtually eliminate bilingual education in California. It is all but certain to qualify for the June 1998 ballot. The initiative would require that all students in public schools be taught primarily in English unless their parents request otherwise. Children who don’t speak English would be placed in English immersion classes, normally for no more than a year. California, with its opposition to the would-be referendum so far comes largely from bilingual-education teachers and Hispanic activists. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund opposes the initiative and has blocked reforms in the past. The group says the measure is really an attack on Hispanic culture and political power. “This is the third in a chain of anti-immigrant, anti-Latino proposals,” says Joseph Jaramillo, a staff attorney for MALDEF.
With roughly $400 million a year spent on bilingual education, a number of constituencies stand to lose money if the measure passes. Schools receive several hundred extra dollars for each student in a bilingual class. Teachers can earn up to $5,000 extra annually for working in bilingual programs, and unions fear the referendum could jeopardize that bonus for some 20,000 teachers.
Yet Unz is far from an immigrant basher. The 36-year-old Los Angeles native, who made his fortune in financial software, has a strong record on race relations. He was a vocal opponent of Proposition 187, the amendment that cut benefits for illegal immigrants, as were many Republican business owners who rely on cheap immigrant labor. However, Unz has developed credibility with Hispanics by also speaking out against other proposals considered by immigrants to be racist, such as national identity cards.
On this initiative, Unz has shrewdly concentrated on winning over Hispanic leaders and Democrats even more than conservatives. Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Mexican-American teacher who has been using English immersion to teach students for about 15 years, is co-chair of the initiative. Unz also signed on Jaime Escalante, the Latino immigrant who taught calculus to inner-city youngsters and became the state’s most famous teacher–and the subject of the movie Stand and Deliver.
Unz says he became interested in bilingual education after reading about a boycott of a Los Angeles school by a group of working-class Latino parents who were irate that their children weren’t learning any English. For two weeks last year, about 70 families kept their children out of the Ninth Street Elementary School until it agreed to release the students from bilingual classes. Alice Callaghan, a priest who runs Las Familias del Pueblo, a community program for some of Ninth Street’s students, spearheaded the boycott. To show the failings of the approach, she distributed this homework assignment from a sixth grader, who had been in bilingual education for six years: “I my parens per mi in dis shool en I so I feol essayrin too old in the shool my border o reri can grier das mony putni gire and I sisairin aliro sceer.”
Once a supporter of bilingual education, Callaghan has become one of its biggest critics. “I don’t care if bilingual education works in theory,” she says. “It doesn’t work in practice.”
. Unz’s critics charge that he knows nothing about bilingual education and is using the initiative to make a name for himself. He’d challenged Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary, getting 34 percent of the vote, and has not ruled out running again.
The so-called Unz Initiative calls for a one-year English immersion program, which many educators say won’t prepare students for academic work in English, although it may allow them to speak more easily to their friends on the playground. “All the research indicates that it takes between five and seven years until someone is sufficient in a second language to learn in an academic setting,” says Patricia Gandara, associate professor of education at the University of California–Davis. “These kids will be able to speak, but they won’t be able to do algebra.”
Unz, who has spent more than $200,000 of his own money on the initiative so far, admits his research consists mainly of anecdotal evidence and his own Russian mother’s quick mastery of English as a second language. He says he sponsored the initiative because “the only way to improve bilingual education is to dump it. And I want quick results.”
The politics, so far, have been strange. Republicans, who might have been expected to eagerly embrace the measure, did so only after considerable infighting. “The Democrats are going to use this to call us racists all over again. It is the last thing we need right now,” says State Republican Party Chairman Michael Schroeder. He says the party “won’t spend a dime” to support the initiative. He notes that Latinos started off supporting Prop. 187 but later turned against it and hammered Republicans in the 1996 elections.
And though the prospect of portraying Republicans as pathological immigrant bashers will surely be too delicious for some Democrats to pass up, many in California’s Latino political establishment have been reluctant to defend bilingual education, whose successes they privately question. Cruz Bustamante, the first Latino Assembly speaker in California history, has remained conspicuously neutral, and Latinos are not expected to mount a big-money opposition to the measure.
By getting influential Hispanics like Escalante signed on early, Unz hopes he has positioned the initiative so it can keep Latino support in the coming months. Unz knows the value of a good attention-getter. Although he was working on a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, when Unz applied for his first summer job on Wall Street several years ago he was concerned about how his resume would play, since he had no financial experience. So he inflated his IQ, listing it as 214 on the Stanford-Binet scale–way beyond genius range [sic]. “I was applying for a job for which I had no experience and I needed a hook,” says Unz, whose political aspirations may land him in a similar predicament again. With bilingual education, he may have found a new hook.