Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, December 3, 1997
Bilingual Debate Comes to L.A.
Education: Ron Unz, backer of initiative that calls for instruction
in English, speaks to state Senate panel.
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writer
California's bilingual education debate landed Tuesday in Los Angeles'
school board chambers and it sounded like this: Hours of testimonials from
researchers, educators, students and parents on the virtues of two-language
teaching followed by one man in a business suit who said it's all a failure.
Catcalls from the audience and a grilling
from a trio of state lawmakers greeted the solitary man, Silicon Valley
entrepreneur Ron K. Unz--sponsor of the proposed initiative that would
eradicate most bilingual teaching programs in California's public schools--as
he testified at a hearing at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified
Unz was knowingly venturing into enemy turf
because the hearing was called by state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte),
one of his leading foes in Sacramento and the chairwoman of the state Senate
Select Committee on Bilingual Education.
His opponents time and again challenged Unz
to cite evidence that his proposal would work. The Unz initiative, called
English for the Children, presumes that most children who aren't fluent
in English can pick up the language with one year of intensive classwork
in a method known as "English immersion."
"I want to know the factual basis, the
empirical evidence, of this being an effective program," said state
Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Glendale), noting that Unz has a background
in science. "I want to learn more than 'It seems like kids learn better
when they're younger.' "
Unz, who majored in physics as an undergraduate
at Harvard, said the public should judge bilingual education on common
sense rather than studies.
"All the pro-bilingual organizations
fund research that show how wonderful it is," Unz said. "All
the anti-bilingual organizations fund research that shows how terrible
it is. Research on both sides is terribly suspect."
Unz went head-to-head with Solis, Wildman
and state Assemblyman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) before an audience of about
100 that included one woman who jeered him, saying, "Are you kidding?"
Last month, the initiative campaign turned
in what Unz said were more than 700,000 voter signatures to qualify for
the June 1998 state ballot. County and state elections officials are now
checking those petitions and expect to determine next month whether Unz
obtained the 433,000 valid signatures he needed.
About 1.4 million California schoolchildren
are not fluent in English. The debate centers on bilingual education, but
state figures show that only 3 in 10 of those students actually receive
formal instruction in their native languages. Most are in classes taught
predominantly in English.
Although Tuesday's hearing was dominated
by bilingual education advocates, it previewed the lines of attack Unz
and his opponents may take if the initiative makes the ballot, as expected.
On one side are the parents, teachers and
researchers who acknowledge that bilingual education has some defects--chief
among them a severe shortage of qualified teachers--but vigorously defend
the idea of teaching children in their native languages as they learn English.
They say the Unz initiative--co-sponsored by Orange County schoolteacher
Gloria Matta Tuchman--would force children at an early age into a virtually
incomprehensible learning environment in subjects such as math, science
and social studies.
"While English language development
is important, there are other aspects of children's development that need
to be paid attention to," testified Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education
at Stanford University.
On the other side is Unz, who cites polls
showing that the vast majority of Californians support all-English teaching.
But Unz seemed a bit on the defensive as his opponents tore into the specifics
of his initiative. Holding a copy in his hand, he repeatedly read paragraphs
and clauses aloud in an attempt to show that he is not seeking to ban all
bilingual education, that teachers would be able to use a bit of foreign
language in a classroom and that parents unhappy with English-only teaching
could opt out with a waiver--all points that his opponents contest.
At one point, Unz was forced to concede that
his oft-cited assertion that bilingual education has a "95% failure
rate" may be based on somewhat misleading statistics. The figure is
drawn from the state's annual count of students learning English who are
reclassified as fluent--typically, around 5% or 6%.
But the state does not track how many of
those reclassified students were actually in bilingual programs, and bilingual
education proponents say it can take years for their programs to work.
"I have no claim that the numbers are
realistic or accurate," Unz said. "But they are the only numbers
available, and I have to work with them."
Although she sparred with Unz on Tuesday,
Solis has been allied with him on one previous occasion. In 1994, the two
marched arm-in-arm at a demonstration against Proposition 187, the anti-illegal
"He was right on that issue," Solis
said. But she added: "I'm not supportive of the Unz initiative at
all. It's very punitive."