Contra Costa Times

Thursday, April 30, 1998

Prop. 227 Author, Foe Face-to-Face at Forum
By PAM KING, Times Staff Writer

PLEASANT HILL -- The debate over how to teach English to California's immigrant children came to Contra Costa County on Wednesday night, with Proposition 227 co-author Ron Unz squaring off in a public forum against the chief spokeswoman for the opposition to the ballot measure.

Unz and Holli Thier repeated the arguments they have made in newspapers, on radio talk shows and in debates throughout the state since Unz launched his initiative drive last fall. Unz emphasized the failures of the current bilingual education system, and Thier called his plan an educational straitjacket that would remove decision-making from local school districts.

Prop. 227 would place all limited-English students into one-year immersion programs designed to teach them English. After that, they would be placed in mainstream English-language classrooms.

Fifteen minutes into the forum, a dozen young people from C-Beyond, a Concord-based group of young activists, rose from their seats and stood silently, temporarily halting the discussion. When several refused to sit down, they were escorted from the room by security guards.

Young people are united against Prop. 227, said Lenore Anderson, C-Beyond coordinator. "We've already made up our minds, and we didn't need to wait to ask questions. We wanted to let Ron Unz know what we thought."

About 300 people nearly filled the multipurpose room at the Pleasant Hill Education Center for the forum, which was televised live. Because of the television coverage, the audience was asked to refrain from cheering or jeering, but some could not restrain themselves.

Unz said he has participated in almost 200 forums and debates since he proposed the ballot measure. In public forums such as this, he said, the audience is invariably hostile; on the other hand, he said, callers to radio talk shows tend to support him by a 10-1 margin.

In the second half of the program, audience members were invited to ask questions and were told to line up in pro- and anti-Prop 227 lines. Only one woman stood in the "pro" line, while the "anti" line snaked to the rear of the room.

At one point, Unz acknowledged that he had never been in a bilingual classroom, although he said he had made "a sincere effort" to visit one.

Sue Tallarico, who teaches a bilingual third-grade class at Meadow Homes Elementary School in Concord, subsequently invited him. Her students,. she said, are reading and writing in both English and Spanish. The audience greeted her invitation with cheers. Unz politely demurred, citing the demands of his campaign schedule.

A Pittsburg High School student told Unz she has been studying a foreign language for two years and is not yet proficient. She asked why he thinks it is possible for children to learn English in just 180 days, the length of the school year.

Unz said he speaks "only 1½ languages," and that if he had been immersed in French the way he proposes that immigrant children be immersed in English, he would be more proficient. He said he learned French for an hour a day, the way today's immigrant children learn English -- and that it's not good enough.

"Bilingual education is a very well-intentioned program," Unz said. "But it has not worked. The only thing keeping it afloat is the millions of dollars that goes to people who make a living from this failed government program."

Thier described the program mandated by Prop. 227 as "a sink or swim, big government spending program."

She said the sheltered immersion prescribed in the ballot measure is too unproven to impose on all California school districts. She objected to the one-year time limit as arbitrary and inadequate for many English learners. She also criticized the $50 million Prop. 227 would set aside for teaching English to prospective adult tutors.

The money would come out of general school funds and probably would require a bureaucracy to ensure that the adults kept their promise to tutor, she said.

About one-third of California's limited-English students are enrolled in bilingual classes, in which most of the teaching takes place in the students' native languages; most of the rest are taught either in sheltered classes, in which the teachers speak a slow and clearly enunciated English, or in mainstream classes with extra help. Federal law mandates that school districts provide assistance to students learning English.

Unz pointed out the failures of bilingual education: the low standardized test scores and high dropout rate among Hispanics and that only 5 percent of California's limited-English schoolchildren are reclassified as proficient in any given year.

So far, Unz's message has appealed to prospective voters. In opinion polls, Prop. 227 is favored by a 2-1 margin, cutting across all ethnic groups. Unz is particularly proud of the support for the initiative from the Hispanic community, which he believes has been most handicapped by bilingual programs.

Unz, a Silicon Valley electronics entrepreneur with no formal background in education theory, ran against Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary. He says he opposed Proposition 187, which would have withheld social services to illegal immigrants.

He wrote the Prop. 227 ballot measure with Gloria Matta Tuchman, an Orange County first-grade teacher who is running for state superintendent of public instruction. Tuchman's Santa Ana classroom is the model for the program proposed in Prop. 227.

Prop. 227 opponents often raise questions about the political ambitions and motivations of Unz and Tuchman. The No on Unz forces have yet to spend any of their estimated $2 million war chest, and they believe public opinion will turn around once voters understand Prop. 227 more fully.

Wednesday night's forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Contra Costa Newspapers. Thomas Scovel, a professor of psycholinguistics at San Francisco State University and a specialist in second-language learning, provided background information on the issues discussed by Unz and Thier.