Los Angeles Times
Sunday, November 23, 1997
Supporters Speak Out for Bilingual Education
Activism: Campaign targets initiative to end current system.
Coalition says well-being of limited-English students is at stake.
By FRED ALVAREZ, Times Staff Writer
Ventura County educators and activists are launching a campaign against
a statewide initiative aimed at dismantling bilingual education, saying
the effort is fueled by misinformation and could harm the county's 25,000
limited English speaking students.
Calling themselves the Ventura County Coalition
in Support of Bilingual Education, members of the group plan to host community
forums and embark on a voter registration drive to defeat the initiative,
likely headed for the June ballot.
"It's important for people at the local
level to understand what the impact will be on limited-English students,"
said Francisco Dominguez, executive director of a countywide Latino advocacy
group and an Oxnard elementary school board trustee.
"The danger is that these students will
fall behind in learning," Dominguez said. "While it's clear there
is room for improvement in this program, that doesn't mean we should give
up on these kids."
The coalition includes the Ventura County
Mexican-American Bar Assn., the Assn. of Mexican-American Educators and
the Simi-Conejo chapter of the National Organization for Women.
The Oxnard elementary school board adopted
a resolution Wednesday night supporting bilingual education and urging
educators throughout the county and the state to oppose the measure.
The "English for the Children"
initiative, sponsored by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz,
would require virtually all classroom instruction to be in English, with
Children who are not fluent would receive
about a year of special help in English before being funneled into mainstream
classes. Currently they can stay in bilingual classes for as long as six
years, being taught primarily in their native language.
The initiative would hold teachers and school
officials personally liable for violating its provisions. In other words,
parents could sue educators for failing to provide appropriate English-language
Proponents of the measure argue that the
current system is desperately in need of an overhaul, that 25 years of
bilingual education have failed California's schoolchildren and placed
them at a competitive disadvantage.
"I believe in education; I don't believe
in segregation," said Simi Valley resident Steve Frank, a government
affairs consultant who early next year will help spearhead a campaign in
support of the initiative.
"This is an effort by those who want
to end segregation by language and who want the best for kids in this state,"
Frank added. "We don't need to raise money, we don't need to gather
signatures, we just need to make sure folks are educated about this measure."
At this point, the measure appears to enjoy
According to a Los Angeles Times Poll, 80%
of California voters--including 84% of Latinos--support the initiative.
However, a separate Times Poll of Ventura
County residents found quite a different perception of the program. Only
49% of poll respondents opposed bilingual education in local schools, including
28% of Latinos.
Times Poll Director Susan Pincus said the
difference in response is attributable to the way the question was asked.
Statewide, the poll question mirrored the
language of the initiative, asking whether respondents would support an
initiative that would require all public school instruction to be conducted
in English. The Ventura County poll was more specific, mentioning bilingual
education by name and asking respondents whether they favor that program
in public schools.
Bilingual education advocates believe the
statewide results are an inaccurate reflection of attitudes surrounding
And they are emboldened by results of the
local poll, saying they believe that as the initiative is more thoroughly
explained, voters will be less likely to support it.
"Unfortunately, we don't get to frame
the language of the initiative," said Paige Moser, co-coordinator
of the county's NOW chapter. "Obviously if I had the power I would
say something more truthful about the attempt to eliminate bilingual education.
We need to fight that. We need to educate people about what's really going
Earlier this month, supporters of the initiative
turned in an estimated 700,000 voter signatures in an effort to qualify
the measure for the June ballot.
That included about 38,000 signatures collected
in Ventura County and handed over Wednesday to local election officials.
Officials are counting those signatures and are expected to report the
results to the secretary of state's office by midweek.
People on both sides of the issue agree that
the measure will likely make it onto the June ballot. There is also agreement
that, if approved, the measure likely would face a legal challenge on constitutional
Educators say at this time it's difficult
to forecast how the measure could ultimately change the classroom climate
for limited-English speakers.
Countywide, about half of the limited English
speaking pupils--94% of whom speak Spanish--get their first few years of
instruction in their home language.
Three in 10 are immersed in English-only
classes, with special booster classes to accelerate their language development.
About 14% receive no special attention at all.
"The initiative is actually more prescriptive
than the current bilingual education law," said county schools Supt.
Chuck Weis. "We have a lot of latitude within the current law to serve
kids in a variety of ways. This particular method, if that's what we resort
to, will not meet the challenges we have to help kids reach higher standards."
In the meantime, campaigns on both sides
of the issue are gearing up to do battle starting early next year.
Frank said he plans to organize a speakers
bureau and launch a community education effort to ensure that the measure
maintains its current level of support.
"This is not necessarily a controversial
issue," he said. "The only people it's controversial with are
those who have a vested interest in preserving bilingual education, and
that's not the parents, and it's not the kids."
On the other side, educators and community
activists say they will do all they can to defeat the measure.
Already, community forums are scheduled to
educate the public about the myths and realities surrounding bilingual
education. And in coming months, opponents of the measure plan to embark
on a door-to-door voter education and registration drive to counter the
"It's going to be very difficult to
fight this, but we're going to fight it," said Clara Ramos, president
of the Assn. of Mexican-American Educators. Dozens of teachers, parents
and others attended a meeting last week to find out more about the measure.
"You just can't judge bilingual education
across the board: Every county, every school district has its own version,"
she said. "We're looking at a campaign of education and information
to try to save a valuable program."
"I believe in education; I don't believe
in segregation. This is an effort by those who want to end segregation
by language and who want the best for kids in this state."