Proposition 227 author Ron Unz came to Santa Rosa on Tuesday and debated a roomful of his staunchest opponents — teachers and parents from the very bilingual education programs his initiative might dismantle June 2.

From the protest signs planted in the lawn out front to the crowd of 300 inside that buttonholed him after a two-hour debate, Unz met plenty of resistance to his plan to replace bilingual education with English-only classrooms in California.

But despite the heavily partisan crowd and sometimes confrontational tone, Unz didn’t lose either his cool or his wide, toothy smile.

Asked if his initiative would help his political aspirations, which in 1994 included a run for governor as a Republican, he quipped: “I don’t think it will within this room.”

Tuesday’s event was billed as a debate between Unz, a 36-year-old Silicon Valley millionaire, and education author James Crawford. It was held at the end of a bilingual education conference at the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Unz’s initiative would order schools to place students with limited English skills into “sheltered English immersion” classes, normally for one year, then move them into regular classrooms. English learners could remain in bilingual classrooms only if their parents obtain an annual waiver.

The initiative has garnered considerable support in several polls. The state Field Poll reported 70 percent of respondents favored Proposition 227 last month. Among Latino voters, support reached 61 percent, up from 46 percent in February.

A Press Democrat Poll also conducted in February found support for the initiative among Sonoma County voters but by a much narrower margin, with 49 percent of the respondents in favor and 43 percent opposed.

During the debate, Unz and Crawford, a former editor for Education Week magazine, sparred verbally over the effectiveness of bilingual education in California and the probable results if 227 passes.

State data cited

Unz cited state data that reports only about 6 percent of the state’s English learners are reclassified as fluent in reading and speaking English each year. He also claimed Tuesday that data recently released by Los Angeles schools show that most students still aren’t fluent in reading English even after spending six years in continuous bilingual instruction.

“Is that program successful or an utter failure?” Unz asked. “I say utter failure and the people of California agree with me.”

Crawford suggested that Unz was twisting data to suit his ideological perspective and that his proposed solution is an untested, “one-size-fits-all” approach that will harm all of California’s students. He warned its provisions can’t be changed without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

“In my view Mr. Unz is selling snake oil … If this experiment fails, there would be nothing that could be done about it,” Crawford said.

There was little on which the two men agreed. They disputed how easy it is to teach children English and whether most other countries use one teaching approach or another for helping immigrant children. They differed on how easy it would be under Proposition 227 for parents to get a waiver, whether the measure would violate students’ civil rights and what was the truth behind a parent protest against bilingual education in Los Angeles that has become a standard story in Unz’s explanation for writing the initiative.

It soon became clear Unz wouldn’t just wind up debating Crawford. Crawford drew nearly all the applause. And when it came time for questions from the audience, every one of them was directed at and took issue with Unz.

“What you have demonstrated clearly to me is that politicians should stay out of education,” said Katrina Ortiz, whose 7-year-old daughter attends Cali Calmecac immersion school in Windsor.

Initiative a threat

Many of the parents like Ortiz have English-speaking children enrolled in two-way immersion programs, in which English speakers and Spanish speakers learn both languages together. Several parents pointed out that even if their English-speaking children are exempt from the provisions of Proposition 227, their Spanish-speaking classmates are not. They called the initiative a threat to such schools.

“He wants to tell all of us what we should do with our kids,” complained Joelle Gallagher, a parent whose child attends an immersion school in Napa.

Others expressed exasperation that Unz has never stepped inside a bilingual classroom and that he didn’t accept their offers Tuesday to visit one of their schools.

Unz maintained he was simply proposing a variation of the bilingual immersion schools the English-speaking parents had enrolled their children in. The parents are having their students enter kindergarten where classes are taught almost entirely in Spanish. His measure would take children who speak Spanish and a host of other languages and put them in immersion classes taught in English.

Unz insisted parents and school officials can preserve their bilingual programs if they wish. But, he warned that “responsible school districts should be preparing for that right now, because we are going to win.”

Proposition 227 author Ron Unz, left, answers a question while bilingual education supporter James Crawford waits his turn during a debate Tuesday at the Sonoma County Office of Education.

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