LOS ANGELES — California, where socially divisive ballot measures often ignite national policy debates, is at it again.

The latest hot-button initiative is called “English for the Children” and would virtually abolish bilingual instruction for 1.3 million California public school students who are classified by the state as “not proficient in English.” Proponents hope that eliminating bilingual education here would sound the death knell for similar programs elsewhere. Half of the national total of children not proficient in English live in California.

California voters are often harbingers of social change. In 1978, passage of the anti-tax Proposition 13 triggered a national anti-tax movement. In 1994, Proposition 187 denied educational and medical benefits to illegal immigrants, leading to similar efforts in other states and federal legislation that reduced benefits for legal immigrants, as well. Last year, in another possible trendsetter, voters passed Proposition 209 to eliminate state and local affirmative action programs. Propositions 187 and 209 have not been fully implemented because of ongoing court challenges.

“Bilingual education is a bizarre government program that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and doesn’t succeed in teaching children English,” said Ron Unz, a multimillionaire software entrepreneur from Palo Alto who is underwriting the campaign to put the initiative on the ballot next June. Opponents acknowledge that the initiative will qualify, and several of them also concede that it will be difficult to defeat.

But Latino leaders contend that the measure is dubious policy and that the campaign to pass it will stir up the ethnic and racial passions associated with the campaigns over Propositions 187 and 209.

“It’s a horrible way to decide educational policy and another example of the initiative process gone berserk,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Bilingual education has been a thorny issue in California since 1986, when voters passed an initiative, since emulated by many states, designating English as the state’s “official language.”

In 1987, the state legislature extended a law mandating bilingual education, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian (R). Bilingual education programs survived because they have been mandated by the California Education Department, which is headed by a nonpartisan superintendent of public instruction.

Now, a new effort has arisen to curtail bilingual education, backed by a loose coalition of political conservatives and Latino parents who do not think their children are learning English rapidly enough.

Last year, dozens of Latino parents at the Ninth Street School in downtown Los Angeles, where 90 percent of children do not speak English, organized as Las Familias del Pueblo and demanded that the school replace bilingual education. Their plea was rejected by school officials.

Similar but less publicized revolts have produced modification of bilingual programs in at least two Southern California communities, Santa Ana and Santa Barbara. Recently, the State Board of Education gave the Orange Unified School District in Orange County, with 29,000 students, a year to try alternatives to bilingual education.

Educators in this district believe that young children learn English best if plunged into what are called “sheltered immersion programs” where they are taught English intensively. This is also the view of Gloria Matta Tuchman, a bilingual first-grade teacher in Santa Ana who co-chairs the “English for the Children” campaign.

As a child of Mexican American parents in Texas, Tuchman was a central plaintiff in a desegregation lawsuit that opened a rural town’s schools to children of all ethnic backgrounds. She said she often talks to the parents of her first-grade students in Spanish.

“The parents tell me that the children learn Spanish at home, and they want them to learn English in school,” Tuchman said.

Unz, who calls himself a libertarian conservative, is not fearful of immigrants. In 1994, in his first try for political office, he received more than a third of the vote in the Republican primary against Gov. Pete Wilson (R), whose reelection campaign featured television commercials showing hordes of Mexicans running across the border near San Diego.

Unz denounced Proposition 187 and Wilson’s campaign as “despicable.” He said that he will not allow anyone associated with that campaign or others with “anti-immigrant views” to become involved in his effort to eliminate bilingual education.

“It would be a disaster if this initiative was perceived as anti-immigrant because it is not,” Unz said.

But Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Center in Claremont, thinks that Unz is naive about his ability to control the political debate. He believes the initiative inevitably will attract support from those who fear the growth of Latino political and economic power in California and that Latinos will also see it as “an extension of 187 and 209.”

Pachon, whose parents are from Colombia, was put in a class for mentally handicapped students when he entered school in Florida because he spoke only Spanish. He eventually learned English by immersion, which he calls the “sink-or-swim” method of teaching language.

“I swam, but some kids sink,” he said.

Immersion advocates say that children also sink under bilingualism, with many of them never becoming proficient in English. Unz cites state data which he says prove a “95 percent failure rate” because only 5 percent of bilingual students move into regular classes.

Some educators contend that Unz misreads the data.

Reynaldo Macias, a professor of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said there is research evidence showing that bilingual education succeeds when there are “qualified teachers and materials and a positive environment” but that such conditions prevail in only about a third of California schools.

Still others, including Pachon, say that existing data are inconclusive and heavily “politicized” by both sides. Because of the absence of adequate data, he said, the Unz initiative is “premature.”

For the past two years, moderates in the legislature led by state Sen. Deirdre Alpert (D) of San Diego and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R) of Santa Barbara have been trying to find a middle ground that would give school districts flexibility to use different programs.

An Alpert bill to allow this flexibility recently won approval of the Senate Education Committee but has drawn opposition from bilingual teachers and influential Latino organizations. Alpert expects that it will be bottled up by Latino leaders in the legislature.

If recent California history is any guide, voters are more apt to approve broad initiatives when the legislature has failed to address a perceived problem with more measured solutions — as was the case both with Proposition 13 and Proposition 187. Alpert regards Unz’s initiative as “divisive and poorly drawn” but believes it is likely to pass unless school districts are given flexibility.

“There is growing concern that we’re producing students who are illiterate in two languages,” Alpert said. “There are a number of approaches and combinations of approaches to teach English, but both sides are dug in. Sometimes in California, we’re our own worst enemies.”

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