Proposition 227 Stirs Many Voices

BERKELEY, Calif.–Maria Luisa is thrilled at the skills her 5 -year-old is bringing home from a Spanish-English dual immersion program.

She doesn’t want to see the program killed by Proposition 227, the ballot initiative that would dismantle bilingual education.

"I’m very worried," she said.

But Olga Balderas wants her son to be schooled in English.

"In my house, we speak Spanish. English in the school," she declared.

Two mothers, two voices in the debate over whether California’s 30 -year-old system of bilingual education is a help or a hindrance.

Tuesday, voters will have their say.

Polls indicate most of them will be saying "Yes."

A Field Institute poll released Friday found 61 percent of voters surveyed support Proposition 227. That was down from 71 percent last month, but still a comfortable lead.

"Our opposition has had a difficult time finding an angle to show that our intentions are not good," said "Yes on 227" spokeswoman Sheri Annis.

Proposition 227, the brainchild of software millionaire and former gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, would essentially replace bilingual education with a one-year English immersion program. Parents could ask that their get bilingual education but only under limited conditions.

Proponents of the measure, known as English for the Children, say bilingual education has failed, resulting in non-English speaking students (most of whom speak Spanish as their primary language) falling behind.

Opponents say there may be problems in the current system, but giving students only one year to master English is a recipe for disaster.

The opposition, which in late May got a $1.5 million cash infusion from Jerrold Perenchio, owner of the Univision Spanish-language television network, hoped to urge voters "to really ask themselves should children be limited to 180 days (a school year) of English instruction," said spokeswoman Holli Thier.

At Columbus Elementary School in Berkeley, where Ms. Luisa and Ms. Balderos’ children attend, officials say the answer to that question is "No."

Last year, Columbus started the new K-5 dual immersion program in which Ms. Luisa’s daughter is enrolled.

The program has about the same number of Spanish and English speakers. It begins with instruction mainly in Spanish and moves to a 50 -50 split by 4th grade.

Parents are required to commit to the full six years and are warned that their children likely will fall behind on standardized tests (given in English) during the middle years, said bilingual coordinator Alison Jones.

But by 6th or 7th grade, the students’ performance will take a leap forward as they emerge bilingual and biliterate, she said.

The program is so popular that about 15 children were turned away when it began last year and more than 50 had to be turned down for admission this fall, Ms. Jones said.

Parent Betsy Rose said she studied the issue carefully before putting son Matthew in the immersion program.

"If I thought it was a handicap, I wouldn’t do it," she said.

As for Proposition 227, she says, "Here’s one European-American parent who is firmly committed to the values that bilingual education is about."

Like Ms. Rose, Ms. Luisa and Ms. Balderos want more for their children.

Ms. Luisa believes the immersion program is the answer. She can already see how much better 5 -year-old Jessica is doing than her older sister, who is in more traditional bilingual education.

Thrusting either girl into an English immersion program could be a shock, she said.

Maria Blanco is another fan of the program, although she was among those who couldn’t get her child enrolled because of space restrictions.

She’s worried about what Proposition 227 will mean.

"I have seen some women crying remembering about those times when they were not allowed to speak their language," she said.

Ms. Blanco, who works as a bilingual clerk at Columbus, served as translator for Ms. Luisa and Ms. Balderos, both of whom spoke mostly Spanish.

Ms. Balderas said she didn’t have enough information about Proposition 227 to say whether it should pass or not.

But she said she has firsthand data on the bilingual education system in the shape of sons Francisco, 9, and Israel, 6.

Israel, who has been taught primarily in English starting with his Head Start program, and is in one of Columbus’ kindergarten classes taught mostly in English, speaks more English than Francisco, who’s been in bilingual education, she said.

Ms. Balderas, who works as a housekeeper, says she’s seen how some of her employers’ children are able to speak one language at home and English at school.

She wants the same for her family.

"I’m not thinking of myself. I’m thinking of my children," she said.

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