Language issue splits California

A referendum initative is aimed at making it illegal for schools to offer bilingual programs.

WASHINGTON—With a growing ethnic population, California is going through the kind of emotional, divisive and sometimes violent language debate that Canadians have been living with for decades.

But while Canadians in many provinces have sought to accommodate parents who want their children to speak both official languages, Californians appear to be headed in the opposite direction.

Next week, Californians are voting on a referendum initiative that would make it illegal for schools to instruct Spanish-speaking children in bilingual programs and compel schools to throw recent immigrants into English-only, sink-or-swim programs.

“It’s dump on Latino time again,” says Antonia Hernandez, executive director of the Mexican American Legal Defence and Educational Fund, which is opposing Proposition 227, otherwise referred to as “Son of Prop. 187″ for the 1996 initiative that sought to deny education and health services to illegal immigrants.

The initiative is one of five on the June 2 ballot and like Prop. 187, it is splitting Californians along ethnic lines and re-igniting the debate over whether the U.S. should be a melting pot or a mosaic of cultures.

Proponents of the initiative have been accused of everything from “ethnic cleansing” to outright racism, and at times threatened with violence.

Last January, when a Santa Barbara school board wanted to end bilingual education in one school — under current law individual schools can get a waiver to experiment with how to instruct to immigrant children — 600 angry parents stormed the board meeting and trustees had to be escorted to their cars by police.

Board president Fred Rifkin called the situation “very tense,” adding he was shocked to be compared to Adolf Hitler.

“Imagine being a Jew and hearing that,” he recalled. The board decided to end its bilingual program in September despite the furore.

But while the most vocal opponents have come from the Latino community, which now makes up about 31 per cent of Californians, the community is by no means united in the debate.

The most recent poll suggests that 63 per cent of Californians are prepared to vote against bilingual education, including a majority of Latino parents.

In fact, it was a group of Latino parents who convinced Ron Unz, a former gubernatorial candidate and computer software millionaire from Silicon Valley, to spend large sums of his own money to put the question on the ballot in the first place.

Unz has said he thought of the idea after a group of Latino parents staged a two-week boycott of classes at Los Angeles’ inner-city Ninth Street elementary school, complaining that their children were not learning English quickly enough in the bilingual classes they were attending.

Reverend Alice Callaghan, a leader in the boycott, said the current system succeeded only in teaching Latino children enough English to become “house cleaners” or sell tamales on street corners. “Our kids want to be doctors and lawyers,” she said.

Unz’s solution: Throw the kids into a special English-only school for a year and then put them into the regular school stream.

“The racism charge is ridiculous,” says Elicia Sherman, a UCLA student who is volunteering her time to work for Prop. 227.

“Mr. Unz was against Prop. 187. We’re doing this because the bilingual program is not working. I see the end results at UCLA every day with students who don’t speak fluent English and have to take remedial classes.”

Ambrosio Rodriguez, a lawyer with the Mexican American Fund, won’t go so far as to accuse Unz of racism, but believes the initiative has tapped into the reservoir of resentment against the wave of Mexican immigration that is changing the face of California.

At the very least, Rodriguez says, Unz and his supporters are misguided and grasping for the simplest solution to a complex problem.

He says he understands that Latino parents are unhappy with the slow progress of their children under the current bilingual, predominantly Spanish programs, but he argues the problems are endemic to the system, not to the bilingualism programs.

Most of these children come from poor, inner-city neighbourhoods where the schools are underfunded and teachers are poorly trained. Train teachers properly and give the schools enough money for textbooks and computers, and watch Latino children flourish, he says.

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