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 School District.
     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 immigration initiative.
     "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."