LOS ANGELES – By their own admission, teachers – particularly bilingual education teachers – are a silent lot.

“It’s frustrating that we’re so passive, so apolitical,” said Antonio Vela, a bilingual education teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in San Jose, Calif.

That silence, he said, hurt their cause last year when software millionaire Ron Unz introduced an initiative to virtually abolish bilingual education in California, affecting 1.4 million language minority students and the 85,000 teachers who work with them.

Proposition 227, which Unz labeled “English for the Children,” would replace bilingual education with an intense one-year English immersion plan.

Bilingual educators throughout the country fear the spirit of the June 2 California initiative will spread to other states.

Supporters of bilingual education are desperately playing catch- up with Unz, who has pushed the initiative since June 1997, when he financed an effort to gather signatures for the election.

Several polls show the idea has wide support among voters.

Opposing it are the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups.

President Clinton last month also announced his opposition to Proposition 227. Joining him are the California Parent Teacher Association, the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, United Farmworkers, the mayors of San Francisco and San Jose and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Bilingual educators in Texas and elsewhere have donated money to the pro-bilingual campaign.

“I am worried because if it passes, it’s going to have a negative impact everywhere else,” said Hugo Hernandez, 25, a graduate student in the University of Texas at San Antonio’s bilingual/bicultural studies program. Hernandez gave $ 5 to the “Citizens for an Educated America: No On Unz” campaign.

Laws protecting teachers in California from being used for political campaigning also kept them from expressing their opinions at school, teachers said.

At first, some remained silent, even when they left the classroom.

“I’m on probationary contract, and I worry that I’ll get fired if I say something,” said a teacher and San Jose State University student working toward a bilingual education teaching certificate, who asked not to be named for this report.

But teachers are speaking out more and more.

Some are campaigning door-to- door against the initiative. At national and statewide conferences for bilingual educators, they contributed money to the “No On Unz” campaign.

“We’re hoping to raise as much money as we can,” said Maria Quezada, president of the California Association for Bilingual Education. “It takes about $1 million to buy a week of TV time and $50,000 to buy a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times.”

After the issue qualified for the ballot, lawyers for MALDEF, which has its national headquarters in Los Angeles, wrote an analysis criticizing the initiative for mandating a “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning English.

They said passage of the initiative would not solve problems facing students with limited English- speaking skills.

MALDEF argues the proposed replacement program is untested, makes no provision for teacher training and would eliminate parental choice.

Attorneys at MALDEF and the ACLU said they will launch a legal battle should voters approve the proposition.

“It’s a bizarre proposal,” said Dorothy Ehrlich, ACLU of Northern California executive director. “It’s a single individual’s proposal about how bilingual education should be delivered, and it would make that one person’s opinion into law.

“We believe that if it was passed, it would very much harm the right to equal educational opportunity.”

Ehrlich and other bilingual education supporters claim Unz has no credibility because he has no experience teaching English-language minorities, nor has he done research on how these children learn.

Unz, who never has stepped into a bilingual education classroom, said his opponents have a vested interested in maintaining the status quo.

“There’s a lot of money in bilingual education and they’re benefiting from it,” he said.

While the U.S. government spends about $262 million each year on educating students who are not fluent in English, that money goes into a variety of different programs, not just bilingual education.

Unz decries as “garbage” and “phony science” the research bilingual education professors present when defending the programs.

“How do you come up with a rational argument with someone who calls research ‘garbage’?” asked David Whitenack, an assistant professor for teacher training at San Jose State University.

Texas educators said they would help defend the program. San Antonio School District trustees recently passed a resolution supporting bilingual education in California.

“I believe in bilingual education,” said San Antonio district Superintendent Diana Lam, who began her own education career as a bilingual education teacher.

Lam began an overhaul of the SASD program three years ago, requiring all teachers to take Spanish fluency tests and establishing a bilingual education department to oversee teaching.

“There’s no doubt that in some cases, bilingual education has not been successful, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a faulty program,” she said. “It just means that they weren’t implementing it right. You don’t say high schools have given us lousy results, so let’s get rid of high schools.”

Opponents of the Unz proposal fear the anti-immigrant sentiment in California and the frustration with the lack of educational standards statewide will mean certain death for the program at the voting booths.

“The backlash against bilingual education has always been there, but now it’s just more blatant,” said Josefina Vilamil Tinajero, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education and an education professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

– Tuesday: The research and the history.

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