California’s Latino civil rights leaders and politicians have portrayed efforts to overhaul bilingual education as an insidious, racist plot concocted by Anglo conservatives, a continuation of the polarizing crusades against illegal immigration and affirmative action.

But those who resist changes in the bilingual programs that affect more than a million California youngsters received a double jolt Wednesday.

The Los Angeles Times published a poll revealing that 84 percent of Latino voters endorse a pending ballot measure that would virtually dismantle bilingual education — a higher support level than Anglos express. And Jaime Escalante, the Latino immigrant who taught calculus to inner-city youngsters and became the state’s most famous teacher, endorsed the ballot measure and denounced bilingual education’s effects on immigrant children.

The Times poll results were nothing short of stunning. In a state as diverse as California few public policy issues claim more than a bare majority of support and two-thirds backing is as rare as snow in El Centro. But the poll found that four-fifths of California voters back the anti-bilingual education measure, which is likely to qualify for the June 1998 ballot, with Latinos the strongest single support group.

“We’re extremely pleased,” Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the “English for the Children” campaign said, “to know what we’ve suspected, that a large percentage of the Latino community favors the initiative.”

The measure’s chief backer is high tech entrepreneur Ron Unz, who sought the Republican nomination for governor in 1984. Annis said the campaign has collected more than 450,000 voters’ signatures and hopes to have 600,000 before petitions are submitted next month. It needs 433,269 valid names to qualify.

Under the measure, instruction in any language other than English would be barred unless parents specifically request bilingual classes for their children.

Escalante gained national fame — including portrayal in a major motion picture, “Stand and Deliver” — as a teacher in Los Angeles. Escalante now teaches in Sacramento and recently rebuffed entreaties by conservative education reformers to run for superintendent of public instruction next year. In a letter to Unz, Escalante said his support for the measure is “based on personal experience” both as an immigrant lacking English language skills and as a teacher.

Bilingual education — instruction in students’ native languages that advocates say leads to proficiency in English — is “a negative factor for most immigrant children, who instead should be taught in English while they are young,” Escalante said.

The political shock waves from the Times poll ripple beyond a high probability that the Unz measure will pass next June.

The poll indicates that Latino leaders are out of touch with the people they purport to represent and that Republican leaders have been unnecessarily timid on the issue. GOP leaders tried, and failed, to block delegates to a recent state party convention from endorsing the Unz drive. Party chairman Michael Schroeder said he was worried that an endorsement could alienate Latino voters and undercut outreach efforts.

The startling poll results also will rekindle an effort in the Legislature to reform bilingual education without killing it. A bipartisan reform measure cleared the Senate easily this year, but doctrinaire liberals blocked it in the Assembly at the behest of Latino political leaders.

Democrats who participated in that blockage, including those who voted against a Republican motion to pull the bill out of committee, could find themselves eating the issue when they seek re-election next year.

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