Ron Unz faced a hostile Santa Rosa audience for the second time in two months on Wednesday night and walked away wearing the same broad smile that has creased his face throughout his campaign against bilingual education in California schools.

It’s the smile of a confident man.

“The majority of supporters of bilingual education in this state are people who make a living off this failed government system,” he shouted over the hoots and boos of a crowd of about 250 at the Burbank Center for the Arts. “It’s a system that’s going to be out the door in two weeks.”

Unz may be right. Polls consistently have shown 60 to 70 percent of California voters favor “English for the Children” initiative, Proposition 227, on the June ballot. The initiative would do away with current bilingual programs and replace them with a plan in which immigrant children and other English learners would be placed in classes for one year to “learn English by being taught in English.”

On Wednesday night, in a debate sponsored by the Sonoma County region of the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, University of California Professor Eugene Garcia said Unz’s plan would throw out programs that are effectively teaching children to speak English, only to replace them with a “one-size-fits-all” approach for which there is “no evidence to suggest this can successfully be done.”

The crowd, which included a significant contingent of teachers and parents of students in bilingual programs, leaned heavily toward Garcia, the dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. But Unz, always smiling, never wavered in his argument that only “academic loonies” are against his plan to teach English to California schoolchildren.

“Bilingual education is indefensible,” he said to another chorus of boos. “It’s never worked and everybody knows it.”

Unz, who also came to Santa Rosa in April to debate his initiative before a largely hostile crowd, spoke with the confidence of a front-runner in an interview before his meeting with Garcia. He talked about Gov. Pete Wilson’s Monday veto of bilingual education legislation, about his disparaging reaction to Wilson’s endorsement of his initiative and, once again, about how Proposition 227 is “pro-immigrant.”

Unz called Democratic Sen. Dede Alpert’s bill “poorly crafted legislation” that had been compromised by four years of fighting in the Legislature. While proponents pointed out the bill would have allowed local school boards to decide how best to teach limitedEnglish speakers and that it included provisions for program accountability that don’t exist in Proposition 227, Unz called the legislation “toothless.”

Wilson, who vetoed the bill, on Monday endorsed Unz’s plan.

“Bilingual education in California has been a complete failure,” the governor said.

Unz called Wilson’s support “unfortunate.”

“We’d made our feelings known to his staff that we really didn’t want the governor’s support,” Unz said. “We want only people with the best pro-immigrant and proLatino credentials on our side, and obviously Wilson is not that kind of person.”

Wilson is one of the few public figures of statewide stature who have gone on record in support of 227. Unz said state Treasurer Matt Fong supports him, as does Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. But all four major gubernatorial candidates oppose the initiative, as do state and national education organizations, teachers unions and immigrant-rights groups.

To Unz, a theoretical physicist trained at Harvard, Cambridge and Stanford, Proposition 227 is “a simple idea that people understand very well. It says all children going to public schools should be taught English.”

But Garcia insisted it is not so simple. First, he said, many bilingual programs do work and studies show children who speak other languages are most successful later in life if they first learn to read in their own language. He pointed out that only 30 percent of California’s 1.3 million limited-Englishspeaking students actually are enrolled in bilingual programs, so any talk of “failure” should focus on the 70 percent who are not.

“Teaching immigrant children English in English is like me teaching you Einstein’s theory of relativity in Spanish,” Garcia said.

He acknowledged English immersion can work for some students. But, he said, Proposition 227 does not take into account that different students learn in different ways, and it gives no flexibility to local school districts to decide what is best for their students.

“Would you want your children’s education to be decided by people who live somewhere else?” he asked.

Many of those in Wednesday’s audience were associated with “double immersion” programs, such as those at Roseland Elementary and Casa Calmecac in Windsor, where Spanish-speaking children and English-speaking children learn each other’s language together. Unz said it would be “easy” to obtain waivers for such programs and acknowledged “they seem to work.”

“I never said all bilingual programs were failures — only about 98 percent of them,” he quipped.

But Garcia accused Unz of “rewriting the proposition while you’re talking about it.” He pointed out the proposition requires any child under age 10 to be taught only in English until he is proficient in English. Only later can parents seek waivers.

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