The fate of bilingual education in California was the subject of a spirited, gloves-off debate Thursday about the English for the Children Initiative headed for the June ballot.
There was plenty of name-calling before the standing-room-only crowd in the California State University, Sacramento, student union—with initiative supporters labeled “right-wing extremists” by their opponents, whom they characterized as “educrats.”
But the one area in which they did agree is that voters need to need the five-page initiative themselves and get beyond the “sound bites” that are the hallmark of today’s political campaigns.
At stake is how 1.38 million California public school children not fluent in English—a quarter of the total school population—will learn the language.
The initiative would replace bilingual education, which uses a child’s native language while he or she learns English, with one year of “sheltered immersion” in which children are taught English in English before being moved into mainstream classes. Parents could choose bilingual education only in limited circumstances.
Some 750,000 signatures have been submitted in favor of the initiative, sponsored by millionaire software developer Ron Unz, former Republican gubernatorial candidate. It is expected to qualify for the June ballot.
“This is not a sink-or-swim initiative,” said Dolores Sanchez, legislative consultant for the California Federation of Teachers. “It’s a drown or doggy paddle initiative.”
Initiative opponents argue that it takes five to seven years for a non-English speaker to become proficient in the language.
But supporters say it is common sense that young children learn language fastest and say that bilingual education keeps children from learning English.
“Bilingual education has proven itself to be a monumental failure,” said Joe Gelman, a Republican Party activist. “It’s a major obstacle to a child’s assimilation and integration in America.”
Initiative supporters claim bilingual education has a 95 percent failure rate because only about 5 percent of limited-English students are classified as fluent in English each year. Last year the number was 6.7 percent.
But bilingual educators say the characterization is unfair because most programs are designed to take several years to move children into English-only classrooms. In addition, they say, only about a third of limited-English students no receive primary-language instruction.
Duane Campbell, an education professor at CSUS, acknowledged there are problems in the current bilingual system and in education as a whole in California. Among them is the fact that the state ranks 40th in the nation in per-pupil spending, he said.
Local businessman Jose Fabila, however, disagreed.
“We’re throwing money in the wrong direction…We’re not giving them the English skills they need,” he said.
Also Thursday, the California Schools Boards Association joined the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers in opposing the measure.
“There is no provision in the Ron Unz initiative for waiving its restrictive measures for local school districts that want to take a different approach or who already have very effective programs in place,” said CSBA President Juanita Haugen.
Among initiative supporters are rank-and-file members of the state Republican Party and famed Latino educator Jaime Escalante.
The text of the initiative and detailed information can be found on two Internet Web sites: www.onenation.org (initiative supporters) and www.smartnation.org (initiative opponents).