Both Ron Unz and opponents of his English for the Children Initiative on Monday asked the California State Board of Education to take a position on the controversial proposal that would virtually eliminate bilingual education for the state’s 1.38 million limited-English students.

“What we have in California today is an utter, unmitigated disaster,” said Unz in a 20-minute address. “What we are talking about is a system corrupt from beginning to end that hasn’t worked in 20 to 30 years in California and, as far as I know, hasn’t worked anywhere.”

Unz said the only people opposing the June ballot initiative — which would replace any teaching in a child’s native language with one year of English instruction, except in limited circumstances — are part of the “bilingual education industry,” whose jobs depend on continuing such programs.

But those speaking against the initiative at Monday afternoon’s hearing included representatives of the state Parent Teachers Association, the California School Boards Association, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the California Teachers Association.

State Board of Education President Yvonne Larsen said she is “not eager” for the board to take a position on the initiative but said she would schedule the matter for consideration if her colleagues ask her to do so.

Such an action would not be unprecedented. The board last took a position on an initiative in the 1980s, according to its staff. The board considered taking a position in 1994 on Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration ballot measure, but did not do so.

Opponents of the Unz initiative outlined several arguments against it, claiming that it would eliminate local control with a “one-size-fits-all” solution, that its methods are “untested and unproven,” that children of several ages would be grouped together, and that teachers could be sued if they used students’ primary languages to communicate with them.

“The initiative will confuse parents and disrupt students,” said Marianne Memmer of the state PTA.

The board spent the morning hearing testimony from six researchers on both sides of the debate, half of whom supported the use of native language instruction and the other half of whom claimed that research does not show that bilingual education is the best method to teach children not fluent in English.

Many agreed, however, that school districts need flexibility to tailor their programs to local populations, but also need to be held accountable.

“Each district should be allowed to make its own choice,” said Rosalie Pedalino Porter of the Institute for Research in English Acquisition and Development in Amherst, Mass., who favors instruction in English for limited-English students.

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