The nation’s most celebrated Latino educator has joined forces with organizers of a proposed ballot initiative that would all but eliminate bilingual education in California schools.

Hiram Johnson High School mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante, whose success with Latino public high schoolers from East Los Angeles was depicted in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” has joined the campaign as honorary chairman, the group announced Wednesday.

The proposed initiative would require that all California public school instruction be conducted in English, allowing exceptions in limited circumstances when parents request it. It has yet to qualify for the June primary ballot but already has become the subject of much political debate.

Escalante said his support for the measure stems from his own experience as an immigrant who struggled in menial jobs until he learned enough English to pursue a career. He believes that bilingual education programs “are a negative factor for most immigrant children,” as he wrote earlier this month in accepting the honorary post.

“From my experience, working at Garfield High (in Los Angeles) and over here at Johnson High, I notice that the kids who are not proficient in English always sit in the back of the room,” Escalante said Wednesday.

“They don’t want to be involved or participate because they haven’t mastered the language,” he said. “It creates a complex of inferiority in the classroom, naturally. It’s great to have a bilingual teacher to motivate the kids to participate in the class, but unfortunately we don’t have that.”

Ron Unz, the wealthy Silicon Valley businessman and former California GOP gubernatorial candidate who is behind the proposed measure, called Escalante’s support “a tremendous boost” to his campaign.

“Having the most prominent Latino educator serving as honorary chairman really just allows more of these Latino public figures to voice their true feelings on the issue,” Unz said.

Backing up his claims, Unz pointed to a Los Angeles Times poll published Wednesday that showed 84 percent of all California Latino voters supporting the proposed initiative.

The Times poll also found that 80 percent of white voters — and an equal percentage of all California voters — support the proposed measure, which its backers call “English for the Children.”

Jorge Duran of Redwood City is one Latino parent who said he supports the proposed measure — and didn’t need Escalante’s endorsement to decide.

He said he and his wife finally succeeded in getting their two girls, now age 9 and 7, out of a local school that spent maybe “20 minutes” in English language instruction. For now, they have them, along with a son in kindergarten, in a school that splits instruction evenly between Spanish and English. But they want more English instruction.

“There were neighborhood children who came from Mexico and they knew more English than my own children, who were born in this country,” Duran said in explaining his support for the Unz measure. “. . . I want my children to have a better future, that they learn English so they can fight for their rights and be somebody in life.”

Ray Muoz, who teaches a “newcomer” class for seventh- and eighth-graders at Martin Luther King Junior High School, said parents who say they support the initiative may not yet fully understand the proposal, which he considers “extreme” in its approach.

Muoz, who said he was “shocked” that Escalante had endorsed the measure, said his own experience and research have shown him that students who speak, read and write their primary language well first are the ones who will learn English rapidly.

“I know his heart’s in the right place, but he is really making a big mistake by endorsing that,” he said. “The research shows if you take primary language away from kids, those kids that really need it are going to take longer to learn English.”

Republican political consultant Sal Russo said that whether the battle on this measure is over before it really begins — as the polls suggest — depends on how the campaign is waged.

“The campaign has to be that we want that opportunity to realize the American dream extended to all children. If that’s the purpose of the campaign, I think it’ll do quite well.”

Escalante downplayed any high-profile role he might play as honorary chairman by saying he’s “really too old to learn the politics,” and plans to stay in the classroom and out of any future television ads.

“First of all, to be a politician you have to lie. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that,” Escalante said. “In the classroom, you can be honest with kids.”

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