Teacher groups target Unz in bilingual ruckus

SACRAMENTO — California’s most powerful teacher groups launched their first attack on an anti-bilingual initiative Tuesday, testing out a campaign strategy some say may not resonate with voters.

Rather than focusing on ways to fix California’s beleaguered bilingual public education system, the campaign promises to zoom in on Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley-based computer software millionaire backing the “English for the Children” initiative.

A one-time gubernatorial candidate, the 36-year-old Unz has spent at least $200,000 of his own money pushing the measure, which will likely go before voters on the June ballot. Critics say he is using the issue as a steppingstone to elected office.

“I don’t think this is a debate about bilingual education,” said Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a spokeswoman for Citizens for an Educated America, the “No on Unz” camp. “This is about what Ron Unz put on the ballot: an untested idea.”

But some say ignoring problems with bilingual education might ring hollow to potential voters who clearly care about that issue.

“If you don’t think it’s important to talk about bilingual education, then why are the polls suggesting voters support Unz’s initiative?” said state Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, whose proposed reform of bilingual education was rejected earlier this year in part because of opposition >from education groups. “I think they’ve got to come up with more than that.”

Unz’s initiative would virtually dismantle bilingual education in California’s public schools, replacing that system with English immersion programs in which students are given one year of intensive language training and then “mainstreamed” into English-only classrooms.

Critics Tuesday noted it takes longer than a year to learn English. Calling the measure a “cookie-cutter approach” to a complex problem, they predicted the initiative, if passed by a majority of voters, would be disastrous for the 1.3million California students who don’t speak English.

Still, the idea of scrapping bilingual education appears to have tremendous support. An October poll by the Los Angeles Times stunned many political observers by revealing between 75 percent and 80 percent of voters supported the premise of Unz’s measure. Hispanic voters surveyed favored the initiative by a sightly higher margin — 84 percent.

Earlier this month, supporters of the initiative filed the signatures of about 750,000 voters to qualify it for the June primary ballot. The Secretary of State will decide by January whether at least 433,269 of those signatures are valid. That’s the number needed for the measure to be placed before voters.

Unz’s camp has been organizing since the summer. So far, they have raised and spent about $500,000.

By contrast, the teachers’ groups — including the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers and the Association of California School Administrators — are just beginning.

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