Hispanic Link News Service

Sunday, January 25, 1998

Unz Initiative Opponents Gain Support, Confidence
By JOSEPH TORRES, Editor, Hispanic Link Weekly Report

Opponents of an initiative that would effectively end bilingual education programs in California are growing increasingly optimistic that the measure can be defeated next June despite recent polls showing it has strong support.

The initiative, "English for the Children,'' authored by millionaire Ron Unz, qualified Dec. 23 for the June 2 ballot. The campaign turned in 510,000 valid signatures, well over the 433,269 needed to qualify.

The initiative calls for placing Limited-English-Proficient students in English-immersion programs for one year before mainstreaming them. Of the 1.4 million LEP students in California, only 30 percent are in bilingual education programs.

The opponents' optimism stems from the creation of a campaign late last year to counter the Unz-funded initiative.

State education groups, including the California Association for Bilingual Education, the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers and local school districts, support or have endorsed the creation of the "Citizens for an Educated America: No on Unz'' alliance.

The coalition has hired consumer advocate Kelly Hayes-Raitt as its spokesperson and long-time political consultant Richie Ross as its strategist.

Jim Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, observes that the press in recent weeks has begun to challenge the initiative's merits. He views this as a positive sign of growing skepticism about the measure.

Hayes-Raitt explains that the campaign's strategy is not to debate the merits of bilingual education or highlight its successes. Instead, it will focus solely on dissecting the initiative and exposing its shortcomings.

According to NABE, the initiative violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act by denying LEP students the same educational opportunities other students receive.

Opponents also claim that the initiative takes control away from local school districts on how best to educate LEP students and eliminates bilingual programs that are working. If implemented, it would create "chaos'' by mainstreaming LEP students into classrooms with students fluent in English, they say.

Sherri Annis, spokesperson for the "English for the Children'' campaign, charges opponents with distorting the measure's intent. "It is doing a great disservice to parents and voters who are trying to make up their minds.''

She says the teachers will evaluate whether a student should be mainstreamed or remain in an English-immersion program, adding that teachers can use the child's native language (assuming they can speak it) to communicate with LEP students even though the "overwhelming'' majority of class time will be in English.

Opponents reject her claims, saying they highlight the initiative's ambiguity.

A source active in the campaign against the initiative hopes to raise $3 million. The money will come from organizations as well as a fundraising effort spearheaded by the California Association for Bilingual Education. CABE members are being asked to raise $500 each. Hayes-Raitt says it will produce radio and television spots. No air dates have been set yet.

So far the Unz team has spent $600,000 and is prepared to spend whatever is necessary to win, Annis says.

If the vote is close, the Latino turnout and its ultimate position will be critical.

A Los Angeles Times poll released last October showed that 84 percent of Hispanics and 80 percent of whites supported the measure. Those percentages dropped in a Field Poll released in December to 66 percent for Hispanics and 71 percent for whites.

Despite what the polls have reported so far, opponents predict that the Latino community will oppose the initiative, just as it did on Proposition 187, which denied children of undocumented immigrants admission to public schools. Early polls had shown that measure also enjoyed strong Hispanic support.

Southwest Voter Registration Education Project President Antonio González predicts that Hispanics will vote against the initiative by the same three-to-one margin they ultimately voted against California Propositions 187 and 209. Prop. 209 barred state-sponsored affirmative action.

Hayes-Raitt says overall support for the measure is declining. Annis said it remains strong.