Voters back English instruction

Survey finds 7 in 10 would support initiative to end bilingual education

California voters overwhelmingly support a proposed ballot measure that would do away with bilingual education in public schools, according to a Field Poll released today.

Nearly seven in 10 voters polled said they would vote for the English for the Children Initiative, while one in four said they would oppose it. About 7 percent said they were undecided.

The initiative would virtually eliminate bilingual education in the state’s classrooms and replace it with a program to teach children in mostly English — even if they don’t speak the language fluently.

“Clearly, people like the concept of the initiative; that’s why they’re supporting it,” said pollster Mark DiCamillo.

State officials are expected to decide later this month whether the 760,000 petition signatures submitted by initiative supporters last month were enough to qualify it for the June 1998 ballot. The measure is co-sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz and Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Southern California teacher.

The poll also showed voters are well aware of the measure’s existence. Of those who responded, 71 percent said they have heard of the initiative.

About 71 percent of non-Latino whites favored the measure as did a majority of Latino voters, though in slightly lower numbers — 66 percent.

Some of the poll’s findings seemed to contradict provisions of the initiative. If the measure were passed, educators would be required to teach students predominantly in English, though waivers could be granted on a limited basis. But when asked whether decisions about bilingual education programs should be made at the state or local school board level, 55 percent of the respondents favored local control, compared with 40 percent who favored statewide decisions.

Respondents also differed slightly from the initiative on the amount of time they believe it should take for students to master enough English to perform at grade level. The initiative would allow students to spend a year in a transitional program where they would be taught English before being moved into a regular classroom. Poll respondents on average estimated it should take two years.

Those who support bilingual education, however, maintain that it can take up to seven years for a child to become fluent in a new language.

“There was a strong support for English as the main language, DiCamillo said. “A majority of California really does not want threats to the English language to be encouraged. If voters vote on those lines, it’s very likely this will pass.”

Both sides in the bilingual debate immediately jumped to put their spin on the poll’s results.

“I’m very encouraged by the numbers,” said Sheri Annis, press secretary for the English for the Children Initiative.

But Kelly Hayes-Raitt, spokeswoman for Citizens for an Educated America: No on Unz, pointed to findings in the poll that seemed to contradict the language of the initiative. Of particular note for her were the number of people who favor local control of education decisions and those who believe it takes more than one year to master enough English to work at grade level.

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