Given the strong support it enjoys in recent polls, it was not surprising that the “English for the Children” initiative to curtail bilingual education had attracted more than 700,000 signatures by the time its sponsors — Orange County teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz — turned in those names to the secretary of state on Thursday. The measure is now overwhelmingly likely to be on the next statewide ballot, in June, 1998, because submitted signatures far outnumber the 433,269 required to qualify.

In a sense, the debate begins anew from this point, because an initiative that actually makes it to the ballot for that very reason draws a new level of public scrutiny. Or at least it should be subjected to closer examination if voters are to discharge their function responsibly. So it is important to go beyond the slogans and survey what the measure would, and would not, accomplish.

A common mischaracterization describes it as an “English only” measure. As Mr. Unz points out on OCN’s “Politically Speaking,” to be broadcast at 11:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. today, his initiative in fact allows for diversity when parents request it. In fact, more than a quarter of the measure is a listing of exceptions — which can be invoked by school principals as well as parents or guardians — to its general emphasis on English instruction.

To be sure, critics suggest that parents who exercise the initiative’s waiver options and ask for bilingual education for their kids might find it difficult wringing the necessary resources out of a school district. Mr. Unz envisions creative responses, such as magnet schools developed by and for families who prefer this linguistic approach.

Districts would be required to present families with a listing of the instruction materials and approaches to be used, be it native-language instruction, English immersion or sheltered English. So the accent is on informed decision-making and family choice.

There are other senses in which it is wrong to call the Tuchman-Unz proposal an “English only” measure. Under its terms, children who fail an English-proficiency exam would be taught for a transitional year in “sheltered English immersion.” The initiative leaves the details to individual principals, teachers and parents. They would be free, for instance, to use teachers’ aides who speak a child’s primary tongue and can help with classroom comprehension.

Another consideration: Isn’t it better to leave policy decisions to the Legislature? Well, it depends. If a ballot measure — Proposition 209 comes to mind, as does Proposition 13 — is superior to anything the Legislature promises to produce on the same subject, then that initiative is by definition more worthy than the fruit of the legislative process. In the end, initiatives should be judged on their individual merit and potential benefit — just as any measure considered by the Legislature must be judged.

The Tuchman-Unz measure promises a big enough departure from the status quo to guarantee lively debate. But that debate should focus on the initiative as it really is, not on how some caricaturists imagine it.



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