SACRAMENTO — Education groups opposing an initiative aimed at the June ballot that would virtually end bilingual education said Tuesday it’s an untested, extremist plan that will harm the 1.4 million California children trying to learn English.
"This isn’t even sink-or-swim. This is drown-or-doggie-paddle," Laurie Olsen of Citizens for an Educated America said at a news conference launching the opposition campaign.
A group called English for the Children, headed by Palo Alto software millionaire Ron Unz, submitted the last of its 760,000 initiative signatures to election officials Friday. If at least 433,269 are found to be valid, the proposal will be on the June 2 ballot.
Supporters say the proposal gives parents a choice about whether their child will participate in a bilingual program.
The initiative, stating that "all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English," would require English learners to be put in classrooms together and be taught "overwhelmingly" in English. It would allow children of all ages and similar fluency to be placed in the same classroom. They would be returned to regular classrooms when they are fluent or within one year.
Parents who want some other method would have to get an annual waiver by going to the school. To get a waiver, the child would have to already know English well, be 10 years or older or have "special physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs."
The debate over the initiative revives the decades-old dispute over how best to educate immigrant children who arrive at school knowing little or no English.
A 1976 law required school districts to offer bilingual education learning opportunities — classes taught at least in part in their native languages — to English learners. That law terminated in 1987 and the Legislature has since been unable to pass a new law. The state Department of Education has continued to advise and fund school districts under the guidelines of the old law.
The basic issue is lack of agreement on how best to make children fluent in English. On one side are English-only proponents, such as backers of the Unz initiative, who say "English immersion" programs with no native language allowed are the fastest way to teach English. On the other side are bilingual educators and many Hispanic groups, who say children need to be taught regular subjects in their native language so as not to fall behind academically while they are learning English.
Somewhere in the middle are groups such as the California Teachers Association and the state school boards’ and administrators’ groups, which are looking for more flexibility. They backed a bill by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, that would allow districts to design their own programs, based on "sound educational theory." The programs could include bilingual or immersion programs or something in between, but districts would have to annually test their students to make sure they are making progress.
That bill stalled this year in the Assembly Education Committee, but could be revived when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January.
There are 1.4 million limited-English students — 25 percent of all students and 40 percent of kindergartners and first-graders. Of the limited-English students, 80 percent are Spanish speakers and an additional eight percent speak Cantonese, Vietnamese or Hmong.
Only 30 percent are currently in a bilingual program, according to a 1997 UC- Davis study. The rest are in English-only classrooms. About 20 percent of those in English-only classrooms receive some informal help in their primary language from an aide. Between 20 and 25 percent receive no services to support their language and academic needs, according to the study.
The groups opposing the initiative say they generally believe bilingual education needs changes and they include groups that back both pure bilingual instruction and the Alpert bill. They say the Unz initiative would not work to teach children English.
"This untested initiative, drafted by someone who has no background in education, would impose a single, cookie-cutter approach upon all schools and teachers in this diverse state," said Olsen.
"No educational research shows that a ‘sheltered English immersion’ program with mixed age groups in the same classroom for a period of no more than one year has any chance of success," said Tom Tyner of the California Federation of Teachers.
Sheri Annis of the Unz initiative committee said Tuesday that children would not necessarily be placed all together in one classroom and that parents could get waivers to keep their children in current bilingual programs.
"This initiative was written with flexibility so you don’t destroy programs that are currently successful," she said.
"This is really a parental choice issue. The parents should decide whether their child is in a bilingual program or not," she added.