Supporters Speak Out for Bilingual Education

Activism: Campaign targets initiative to end current system. Coalition says well-being of limited-English students is at stake.

Ventura County educators and activists are launching a campaign against a statewide initiative aimed at dismantling bilingual education, saying the effort is fueled by misinformation and could harm the county’s 25,000 limited English speaking students.

Calling themselves the Ventura County Coalition in Support of Bilingual Education, members of the group plan to host community forums and embark on a voter registration drive to defeat the initiative, likely headed for the June ballot.

“It’s important for people at the local level to understand what the impact will be on limited-English students,” said Francisco Dominguez, executive director of a countywide Latino advocacy group and an Oxnard elementary school board trustee.

“The danger is that these students will fall behind in learning,” Dominguez said. “While it’s clear there is room for improvement in this program, that doesn’t mean we should give up on these kids.”

The coalition includes the Ventura County Mexican-American Bar Assn., the Assn. of Mexican-American Educators and the Simi-Conejo chapter of the National Organization for Women.

The Oxnard elementary school board adopted a resolution Wednesday night supporting bilingual education and urging educators throughout the county and the state to oppose the measure.

The “English for the Children” initiative, sponsored by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, would require virtually all classroom instruction to be in English, with limited exceptions.

Children who are not fluent would receive about a year of special help in English before being funneled into mainstream classes. Currently they can stay in bilingual classes for as long as six years, being taught primarily in their native language.

The initiative would hold teachers and school officials personally liable for violating its provisions. In other words, parents could sue educators for failing to provide appropriate English-language instruction.

Proponents of the measure argue that the current system is desperately in need of an overhaul, that 25 years of bilingual education have failed California’s schoolchildren and placed them at a competitive disadvantage.

“I believe in education; I don’t believe in segregation,” said Simi Valley resident Steve Frank, a government affairs consultant who early next year will help spearhead a campaign in support of the initiative.

“This is an effort by those who want to end segregation by language and who want the best for kids in this state,” Frank added. “We don’t need to raise money, we don’t need to gather signatures, we just need to make sure folks are educated about this measure.”

At this point, the measure appears to enjoy overwhelming support.

According to a Los Angeles Times Poll, 80% of California voters–including 84% of Latinos–support the initiative.

However, a separate Times Poll of Ventura County residents found quite a different perception of the program. Only 49% of poll respondents opposed bilingual education in local schools, including 28% of Latinos.

Times Poll Director Susan Pincus said the difference in response is attributable to the way the question was asked.

Statewide, the poll question mirrored the language of the initiative, asking whether respondents would support an initiative that would require all public school instruction to be conducted in English. The Ventura County poll was more specific, mentioning bilingual education by name and asking respondents whether they favor that program in public schools.

Bilingual education advocates believe the statewide results are an inaccurate reflection of attitudes surrounding this issue.

And they are emboldened by results of the local poll, saying they believe that as the initiative is more thoroughly explained, voters will be less likely to support it.

“Unfortunately, we don’t get to frame the language of the initiative,” said Paige Moser, co-coordinator of the county’s NOW chapter. “Obviously if I had the power I would say something more truthful about the attempt to eliminate bilingual education. We need to fight that. We need to educate people about what’s really going on.”

Earlier this month, supporters of the initiative turned in an estimated 700,000 voter signatures in an effort to qualify the measure for the June ballot.

That included about 38,000 signatures collected in Ventura County and handed over Wednesday to local election officials. Officials are counting those signatures and are expected to report the results to the secretary of state’s office by midweek.

People on both sides of the issue agree that the measure will likely make it onto the June ballot. There is also agreement that, if approved, the measure likely would face a legal challenge on constitutional grounds.

Educators say at this time it’s difficult to forecast how the measure could ultimately change the classroom climate for limited-English speakers.

Countywide, about half of the limited English speaking pupils–94% of whom speak Spanish–get their first few years of instruction in their home language.

Three in 10 are immersed in English-only classes, with special booster classes to accelerate their language development. About 14% receive no special attention at all.

“The initiative is actually more prescriptive than the current bilingual education law,” said county schools Supt. Chuck Weis. “We have a lot of latitude within the current law to serve kids in a variety of ways. This particular method, if that’s what we resort to, will not meet the challenges we have to help kids reach higher standards.”

In the meantime, campaigns on both sides of the issue are gearing up to do battle starting early next year.

Frank said he plans to organize a speakers bureau and launch a community education effort to ensure that the measure maintains its current level of support.

“This is not necessarily a controversial issue,” he said. “The only people it’s controversial with are those who have a vested interest in preserving bilingual education, and that’s not the parents, and it’s not the kids.”

On the other side, educators and community activists say they will do all they can to defeat the measure.

Already, community forums are scheduled to educate the public about the myths and realities surrounding bilingual education. And in coming months, opponents of the measure plan to embark on a door-to-door voter education and registration drive to counter the initiative.

“It’s going to be very difficult to fight this, but we’re going to fight it,” said Clara Ramos, president of the Assn. of Mexican-American Educators. Dozens of teachers, parents and others attended a meeting last week to find out more about the measure.

“You just can’t judge bilingual education across the board: Every county, every school district has its own version,” she said. “We’re looking at a campaign of education and information to try to save a valuable program.”

“I believe in education; I don’t believe in segregation. This is an effort by those who want to end segregation by language and who want the best for kids in this state.”

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