The Unz Initiative: a Conversation

When the Subject Is Teaching English in Public Schools, the Debate Ranges Far and Wide

In Ventura County, by one estimate, about one in five students speaks no English or has limited proficiency. The percentage has increased sharply in the past decade, for a current total of about 25,000 limited-English-proficiency students in the county. Although most people agree that these students urgently need to acquire English language skills, there is little agreement about how to teach them.

Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” or Unz initiative, drafted by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, seeks to dismantle bilingual education by requiring that virtually all public school classroom instruction be in English. The measure will be on the June 2 ballot.

Times articles editor SARAH HOLEMAN spoke recently with three community members about the Unz initiative and the effects it could have on the Ventura Unified School District: Steve Frank, a Simi Valley resident and government affairs consultant, is spearheading the Ventura County campaign in support of the initiative; Jennifer Robles is the bilingual program specialist for the Ventura Unified School District; and Cliff Rodrigues is president of El Concilio del Condado de Ventura and a member of the Ventura Unified board of education.

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Times: If the Unz initiative passes, how would this change the teaching of English in Ventura County public schools?

Steve Frank: I think the first change would be that instead of the education community making the decision, that parents would make the decision as to what is best for their child, and that’s very important. In East L.A. last year, several hundred parents, all Spanish-speaking, walked out of the elementary school and boycotted it for two weeks, until they were able to get their children into English-speaking classes. In the South they segregated kids by color. In California we segregate children by language. And just as children in the South weren’t able to get a good education because of this and succeed in life, kids in California aren’t able to succeed. The best example of that is the fact that approximately 40% of Hispanic children in California drop out of school, and that has a great deal to do with the fact that they aren’t learning English, they aren’t learning the lessons of life, and therefore they’re not seeing any benefit to being in school. The kids–as well as the parents–know that to succeed in the United States, you have to speak English. And the government schools are failing to teach kids English.

Cliff Rodrigues: If this initiative does pass, in many cases there will be a dramatic change. Many of our kids in Ventura County, and the rest of California, are now getting instruction in the language they understand. They’re getting the content of core curriculum in a language they understand, and at the same time, English is being taught to them in an organized, sequential, developmental manner. In a given period of time–three, four years–they are able to make that transition [out of bilingual education]. If this initiative does pass, we’re going to have kids in a classroom for one year, learning English, and then they’re going to be mixed, at various age levels, into one classroom. Learning is going to become very difficult.

Jennifer Robles: The first thing that comes to my mind, after spending many hours reviewing the Unz initiative, is that we would be moving away from the method for teaching English to speakers of other languages that is recognized by state groups and national groups to be the most effective. . . . Right now we have programs that give parents the opportunity to choose the program they would like as they enroll their children in school. The Unz initiative says, “You don’t have a choice, parents. For the first month we’ll tell you how we’re going to do it. At the end of that month we will give you an option to make a change, if there are 20 or more of you who have the same idea, at one grade level, at your school.” In Ventura Unified, our principals are wondering, “How are we going to accommodate this,” if it should happen.

Two other issues that are very different: Right now, children are enrolled at their own grade level, at their home school, with a qualified teacher. If the Unz initiative passes, it directs us to isolate the student in an English-only classroom with other students who are learning English at the same ability level, but [with] all grade levels. So we could have a 5-year-old kindergartner in class with a 9-, 10-year-old upper-grade student. For a year. And finally it says that the teachers’ qualifications for this program are eliminated. A teacher basically has to have working knowledge of English. In our school district, we’ve been working now for four years to make sure that all of our teachers, not just bilingual teachers, are qualified to work with

English-language learners. Teachers at all of our schools have worked to obtain what’s called the Crosscultural Language and Academic Development–the CLAD–Certificate, so that they can teach kids English and academic subjects in English. It’s been a big commitment on the part of our teachers and school district. We don’t believe that teachers with just entry-level skills and a general knowledge of English are qualified to teach English to speakers of other languages.

Frank: First, you’re underestimating the competency and intelligence of the Hispanic kids. Because the Asian kids are able to get out [of bilingual education classes], because they are being pushed, yet the education community is not pushing the Hispanic kids. And that’s the real problem. That’s why parents are behind this [initiative]. One of the great educators of America, Jaime Escalante, is chairing this effort to end bilingual education as we know it.

Second, you said that the children would be getting–are getting–instruction in a language they can understand. Absolutely true. The problem is that [when] those children finally get out of school . . . they still can’t get a job, any serious job, other than flipping hamburgers, because what the education system has done is not give them the language of America. They give them the language of another country.

Even Ted Mitchell, one of the deans at UCLA, [in a Times article March 1] made mention of conflicts of interest of the groups that support bilingual education. Because this creates a mixed incentive for school districts, which on one hand want children to move from first-language instruction to English-language instruction, but at the same time face a financial incentive to keep them in first-language instruction. These systematic problems must be addressed. And this is what the Ventura school district and these other school districts are looking at. They’re not looking at the children, they’re looking at the money that comes into their district, and that’s a true conflict of interest. It’s not for the parents; it’s not for the kids; it’s for the bureaucracy.

Finally, it was said that you’ll have cases in which 5-year-old children are in classes with 9-year-olds. Absolutely true. And what are they doing in the class? Learning English. And whether you have a 9-year-old or a 20-year-old in that class, if they’re going to learn English, let them learn English. And maybe they can work together. Already in junior high school, middle school and high school, you have classes where you have ninth-graders with 12th-graders in some computer classes and other technology classes. There’s nothing wrong with kids, regardless of age, being in one class, learning English, if that helps them survive and succeed in America.

Rodrigues: A person does not learn a second language in one year and have in that language the ability to survive in an academic situation. Yes, after one year a person does have a good understanding of basic communication skills, some basic exchanges. But for the level of language needed, and the level of language we expect our kids to learn and understand, one year is not enough. It’s a good start, and it’s a good direction, but it’s not enough.

Frank: But your current system has 95% failure rate . . .

Rodrigues: That’s not true. Frank: Ninety-five percent of the kids are still in the [bilingual education] program the second year. By State Department of Education statistics–and no one on your side has ever denied it–only 5% of the kids “graduate”–I put quotes around the word “graduate”–from bilingual education into mainstream education. And that’s a horrendous failure rate. . . .

Actually, the Washington Post says I’m wrong. It’s 6% that get out per year, according to the Post.

Robles: Unless you work in a bilingual education program, you just don’t know what that number means. And in fact [initiative author Ron K.] Unz was forced to concede that this oft-cited assertion that bilingual education has a 95% failure rate may be based on somewhat misleading statistics [or] that he misused those statistics. . . . A better way to look at that statistic is to consider that in our school district we have K-12 students, or 13 grade levels of kids. Every year, 1/13 of our 16,000 students move into the mainstream . . . 1/13th.

Frank: That’s 8% maybe?

Robles: That’s the success [rate] of our school district.

Frank: Great, so a 92% failure rate.

Robles: I’m talking about 12th-graders who graduate every year [from high school]. Eight percent of our kids graduate every year. Do we call Ventura Unified a failure because we only graduate 8% of our total enrollment every year? No, we don’t, because the kids behind those 12th-graders are in process. So to look at this re-designation statistic and say that it represents failure in 95% or 94% of the students is a misunderstanding of that figure.

Frank: There’s a difference between a graduation rate of 1/13th–8%–and kids who year after year stay in bilingual [education] and are there from when they get into school.

Robles: What’s the difference? Kids year after year stay in our school.

Frank: But when they get finished, they’re not going to be able to work in American society that speaks English. Times: How long should it take a student to acquire English proficiency?

Frank: At a younger grade–4th and below–it should take a year. At a higher grade, it’s been done in two years and less.

Robles: Ventura Unified’s program is based on the premise that it takes five to seven years for kids to be actually proficient enough in English–enough to move into the mainstream. And that’s what we see. We see kids orally fluent in English at third grade, after four years of instruction; they have passed an oral test. Then they continue in academic English development until middle school, and we see them at seventh grade ready to actually be fluent English.

Rodrigues: And then add the bell curve picture that some kids are going to learn English faster, and some are going to take longer. You have that whole spectrum of abilities and growth and learning.

Frank: There are three reasons that I support the Unz initiative. First, I believe parents know their children better than any educator. Second, the current system has failed the kids–worse than failed the kids. . . . It forces the segregation of kids by language for lengthy periods of time. And the third reason is that I believe that there are qualified educators currently in Ventura Unified, Simi Unified, L.A. Unified, who are quite capable of taking kids and teaching them English, regardless of their native language, and that they should be allowed to do that in a system where the needs of the children and the desires of the parents are taken [into account], rather than a bureaucracy. And I believe that the public school teachers in this state are quite capable, with the abilities they have, with a system of freedom for the parents and freedom for the kids, to make decisions and to be successful with those decisions. The educational bureaucracy originally opposed charter schools, has opposed any number of reforms. This is another reform, and it’s going to happen.

Right now there are parents who don’t think the current system is working, which is why we’re doing this initiative. And the success or the defeat of this initiative will be directly related to how school districts, not here in Ventura alone, but statewide, how the parents feel school districts are doing for the kids of this state. And as we’ve seen on other reform things, the parents are usually ahead of the education establishment.

Robles: Our parents are asking me to protect the programs that are in place for their children.

Frank: Protect it. Elect people like Cliff to the school board, who are going to protect the bilingual system, if that’s what the parents of Ventura Unified want.

Robles: Let’s talk about parents’ flexibility to choose a program for their kids. When they walk on campus at Will Rogers and they say, “Hey, I’m here and I’d like my child to be in a bilingual program, and I want my child to know two languages when he or she graduates. Have you got that to offer me?” In fact, I, myself, as a parent might ask for that for my children and I don’t see it as a possibility.

Frank: Article three [of the initiative] is very clear on parental exception. . . . Under parental waiver conditions, children may be transferred where they are taught English and other subjects through bilingual education techniques or other generally recognized educational methodologies permitted by law. Individual schools in which 20 or more of the given grade level receive a waiver shall be required to offer such a class, otherwise they must allow the students to transfer to a public school in which such a class is offered.

Rodrigues: I want to go back to the reality and practicality of the [initiative provision] that says that at any grade level, any 20 parents after 30 days can come in and request a bilingual class, or if they can’t find it at that school, be transferred to another school where that program may exist. That sounds nice on paper. But look at the reality. Look at any school 30 days into a school year. The classrooms are set, the teachers are set, and someone’s going to come in and say, “Oh, we want to change these,” or, “We’re going to move these kids over to another school.” Who is going to pay for that extra transportation for these kids? Who is going to go out and get . . .

Frank: Immigrant parents have always, throughout the history of this country, sacrificed for their children. And I can’t believe that Hispanic parents would not be sacrificing for the education of their children. I believe they do sacrifice for them. Rodrigues: Of course they do. They sacrifice a lot for them. But they don’t have the added luxury of being able to run their kids all over town, to go to a particular program.

Frank: Parents work it out, whether it’s their neighbor, their grandparents who take the kids . . . there is a way.

Times: Is it appropriate for voters–people who may have no training in education, no children, may never have attended a school board meeting–to go into a voting booth and decide education policy?

Frank: Yes, it is appropriate for parents in the community, working together with the educational experts, to make determinations. The reality is, school board members serve at the pleasure of the voters. It’s obviously appropriate that the parents and taxpayers should be in control of the system because the educators, the teachers, the principals, etc. are employees of the public.

Rodrigues: Oh, I think voters can make the decision. But my hope is that along with making a decision that they don’t look at the title of this initiative, “English for the Children,” because I think it’s very misleading. I think they need to look at all the provisions, look at what they are saying, what the implications are and then make an informed vote. And I’m not just talking about this, but rather on everything that they vote on . . .

Frank: Cliff and I totally agree on that.

Robles: I would like to put out the caveat that before you vote on something that has such direct impact on children, that you’d walk in those children’s shoes first. Go into a classroom, see what it feels like, see what would happen to you under the provisions of this initiative and then vote.

Frank: We’re all in favor of people being informed voters here, and if this helps move people in that direction a little bit, then good for us.

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