Many in California oppose bilingual classes, polls show

Nowhere has the debate over bilingual education reached a more fevered pitch than in California, where voters will decide June 2 whether to dismantle the state’s system of teaching limited-English proficient children.

The opposition is being led by unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, Ron Unz, a Harvard-educated physicist who is chief executive officer of a Palo Alto-based financial services software company. He’s leading the “English for the Children” initiative, which seeks to outlaw bilingual education unless parents obtain a waiver that allows their children into the special classes.

Polls have put public support for the initiative as high as 78 percent, even among Hispanics whose children make up the bulk of students in bilingual education. The initiative also has gained some high-profile allies, most notably teacher Jaime Escalante. Mr. Escalante, whose success at teaching advanced calculus to working-class Latino students was depicted in the 1987 movie Stand and Deliver, is the movement’s honorary chairman.

But the initiative has been assailed by education groups, most recently the California State Parent-Teacher Association and the California Teachers Association.

For Mr. Unz, interest in changing the state’s bilingual education system grew out of his 1994 Republican primary challenge to Gov. Pete Wilson.

“I’ve been working to end bilingual education since before the ’94 campaign when I started reading articles about Hispanic parents who were upset about their children not being taught English,” Mr. Unz said. “I looked into the numbers, and I was appalled.”

The numbers that most appalled him, Mr. Unz said, came from the California Department of Education, which reported that only 5 percent of the state’s limited-English students gained proficiency in each year.

“I set up meetings with bilingual education supporters and asked them to defend the current system. They couldn’t,” Mr. Unz said. “They don’t think there’s a problem with bilingual education in theory. They just think it hasn’t been instituted properly. But it’s been a dismal failure.”

The initiative’s challengers agree that the state’s bilingual education system isn’t perfect. But they say Mr. Unz’s “scorched earth” policy of scrapping bilingual education on the whole will be even worse for the state’s limited-English children.

“The biggest problem with his initiative is that it delays learning in other subjects for years,” said Jim Lyons, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

“Studies have shown that while students in immersion programs like the ones he wants to create have gotten a small boost in English proficiency, they’re falling behind in all other subjects,” Mr. Lyons said. “The real problem is people like Unz talk off the top of their head without any historic understanding of bilingual education.”

Mr. Lyons said that before California provided bilingual programs, 80 percent of the state’s limited-proficiency students dropped out by the eighth grade. At the time, Ronald Reagan was governor.

Mr. Unz said he decided to create the initiative after hearing about parents boycotting Los Angeles’ 9th Street Elementary School, where the native language of 90 percent of the students is Spanish and only 1 percent tested out of bilingual classes in 1996.

Hispanic parents were upset that their children weren’t learning English.

The boycott leader, Sister Alice Callahan, a nun who runs the Los Familias del Pueblo mission near the school, said the boycott was a last-ditch effort against a school that ignored parents’ wishes and students’ needs.

“I used to support bilingual education. But I kept seeing our kids graduated to junior high with a second-grade reading level in English,” she said. “The parents wanted the school to take their kids out of the bilingual classes and teach them in English, but the school refused. It’s horrible what this is doing to kids.”

Evangelina Cortez, assistant superintendent in charge of the Dallas Independent School District’s Multilingual Education Department, said California and other states haven’t given bilingual education enough time.

“For 100 years, kids had been pushed out of the school system, so it’s going to take a lot longer than 30 years to reverse the damage that was done,” she said. “We’re still learning ways to improve the ways kids learn, especially with different languages. It’s going to take more time.”

Mr. Unz said he hopes the vote June 2 will show other states how to overcome what he says is an entrenched idea that doesn’t work.

“I’m very confident that we’ll win. The voters of this state have a chance to overturn a system that’s segregating and dividing our children,” he said. “Hopefully, other people will take a hard look at bilingual education in their state and get on with truly educating their children.”

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