To screams of "liar" and constant hisses, a confident Ron Unz told a crowd of roughly 300 people, that California voters and immigrants largely support eliminating bilingual education programs.
At a highly charged debate last night in Chinatown, sponsored by the Organization of Chinese Americans and the Asian American Bar Association, the author of the highly controversial Proposition 227 called existing bilingual education programs "an utter, utter failure."
The measure, which goes on the ballot in June, would virtually terminate current bilingual education programs and replace them with one-year programs that teach children in English only.
The proposition, which has largely been touted as a measure affecting Spanish-speaking students, will affect a substantial number of Asian-language-speaking students. Of the 1,381,393 limited-English-speaking students in California, over 200,000 are Asian Americans.
Before a crowd of Asian Americans, Latinos and whites, Unz claimed that "Asian Americans overwhelmingly support our initiative by 7 to 1."
While the most recent Field Poll taken earlier this year does indicate that 79 percent of Asian Americans favor the proposition, Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, has noted that only 5 to 6 percent of Asian American voters in the state were surveyed.
"That could be between 30 to 40 people," DiCamillo warned.
And though Unz acknowledged the benefits of some learning programs, such as two-way immersion programs whose aim is to teach all children to speak English and a second language fluently, he said the large majority of programs have failed students.
"I don’t think all bilingual education programs should be eliminated, I just think 98 percent of them should be flushed down the toilet," Unz said, adding that a large percentage of children who enter bilingual education programs at the beginning of a school year do not become proficient in English by the end of the year.
Another panelist, Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education at Stanford University, argued that bilingual education programs are being inappropriate scapegoats for much larger problems facing the school system.
"We should quit barking up the wrong tree of whether we should teach in English or not, and move on to look at other approaches to helping schools," said Hakuta.
"What are we going to do constructively … about the education of these students," Hakuta said, adding other issues in, such as the parents’level of English proficiency determines the rates at which a student learns English. "This is barking up the wrong tree and fails to address academic content … This makes a mockery of bilingualism."
After months of silence, the Clinton administration also voiced its opposition to Proposition 227 earlier this week.
U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley said in a statement "Proposition 227 simply ignores the individual needs of each child and certainly is an educational strait-jacket for teachers and parents. Good teaching starts with a child’s needs and moves the child along in a timely and responsible manner."
Riley instead, proposed that local districts set a three-year goal for each child to learn English.
"Individual differences and circumstances may cause some children to take longer, but a goal of learning English within three years is reasonable," Riley said adding that implementing a goal is not the same as issuing a mandate. "The focus should be on the individual needs of each child and not on some artificial and arbitrary time frame."
Riley acknowledged that current bilingual education programs are far from perfect, due to insufficient resources, and said the administration will request double the amount of funds available for education.
According to Riley, the administration has increased its federal funds request from $25 million to $50 million, to help districts meet the increasing demand for certified bilingual and English-as-a-second-language instructors. The California State Board of Education estimates that there is a shortage of 21,000 bilingual education teachers in the state.
Opponents, while thrilled with the Clinton administration’s position on Proposition 227, remain concerned with Riley’s three-year proposal.
"The thing that surprises me is that they’d propose three years as a goal, since studies show that four to seven years is how long it takes students to learn English," said Lisa Lim, a member of the steering committee of the Asian Pacific Americans for Educational Equality (APAEE). "Three years is still not sufficient."
"That was very disappointing to hear … when it comes across as a goal, people often see that as a maximum," Lim added.
For its part, APAEE, which is a collaborative of activists, educators and advocacy groups, is increasing its efforts to inform Asian Americans about the proposition. The group has already conducted speaker training sessions to boost its community education efforts, and is readying a big media advertising splash that will include television and newspaper ads.