Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, December 24, 1997

English-Immersion Initiative Makes Ballot
Elections: State to vote June 2 on whether to gut bilingualeducation. Measure affecting campaign spending by unions also qualifies.

An initiative seeking essentially to dismantle bilingual education hasqualified for a state vote in June, California election officials announcedTuesday, clearing the way for a campaign likely to generate national debate.
     Also securing a spot on the ballot was aninitiative that would require unions to obtain permission from membersto use their dues in political campaigns. Union leaders call the measure,backed by Gov. Pete Wilson, a significant threat to their political clout.
     If it passes, it could strip organized labor,a traditional Democratic ally, of millions of dollars in campaign money.
     The English for the Children measure--alsoknown as the Unz initiative after sponsor Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valleyentrepreneur--would end most native-language teaching programs in publicschools for students not fluent in English.
     Critics say the measure would be calamitousfor a school system already straining to serve 1.4 million students whoread, write or speak limited English. Some predict that it could fuel ethnictensions in a manner reminiscent of Propositions 187 and 209, which soughtto cut benefits to illegal immigrants and end state-sponsored affirmativeaction, respectively.
     Most schoolchildren targeted by the Unz measurespeak Spanish as their primary language.
     Unz hailed news of the impending vote.
     "Our initiative has the potential forbeing tremendously unifying in the state of California," he said,"a vote which crosses party lines, which crosses ideological linesand which crosses lines of ethnicity.
     "The object of our initiative is a verysimple idea: that little immigrant children should be sent to school andtaught English, which I think most people would not think controversialpublic policy."
     The initiative is co-sponsored by GloriaMatta Tuchman, a Santa Ana first-grade teacher and longtime English-onlyactivist of Mexican descent.
     Of more than 700,000 signatures Unz submittedin November, Secretary of State Bill Jones found that at least 510,796were from registered voters. The measure needed 433,269 to qualify.
     The chief strategist for the No on Unz campaign,political consultant Richie Ross of Sacramento, said he was not surprisedat the news. Unz, a millionaire, had hired professional signature gatherers.
     While some Latino groups have attacked theinitiative as fueling ethnic rifts, Ross said the key issue is controlof classroom curriculum. He called the initiative a "state-centralized,one-size-fits-all" policy out of step with the electorate.
     "If you have a successful [bilingual]program today, Ron Unz's initiative outlaws it," Ross said. "Hebasically says this shall be the way it is done for all schools. That'sjust not where the public is moving these days."
     The initiative calls for virtually all classroominstruction to be in English and for children with limited English skillsto receive about a year of specialized help--known as "English immersion"--beforemoving into mainstream classes.
     Unz has said his proposal for a year of immersionis based not on educational research--most of which he calls suspect--butcommon sense. He cites the success of his ally, Matta Tuchman, in teachingEnglish to her students without using their native language.
     Current state policy, based on a law thatexpired 10 years ago, calls for most students to receive native-languageinstruction as they are learning English. But that policy has long beencrippled by a severe shortage of certified bilingual teachers, and manyschool districts have exemptions to the rules.
     Surveys by the Los Angeles Times and Fieldpolls show that the initiative is starting with strong voter support. Opponentssay opinions will turn around when details of the measure are publicized.
     The state Republican Party endorsed the initiativein September, though Wilson and the party's likely nominee to replace him,California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, have not taken public positions on it.
     Many education groups oppose the measure,including the California Teachers Assn., the California School Boards Assn.and the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Trustees.
     "This is the meanest and stupidest initiativeI've ever seen," said Jeff Horton, a Los Angeles Unified trustee,after the board's vote on the matter this month. "Nearly half of ourstudents are limited-English speakers. It's impossible to write an initiativethat will dictate to all of the thousand districts in all of Californiahow to teach."
     The other measure qualifying for the June2 ballot would require union leaders to obtain approval from their rankand file before using union dues to finance political campaigns.
     The measure also would ban corporations andemployers from using funds collected from employees for political purposes.Contributions from foreign sources also would be banned.
     But unions, which usually back Democratsin partisan races, stand out as the principal target of the initiative'sproponents, including Wilson, honorary chairman of the campaign for themeasure.
     Many working Americans, he said, are deniedpolitical choice. "That is because," he said, "as membersof labor unions, a portion of their dues are routinely spent by the unionbosses for political purposes without their consent or even their knowledge.. . . That's just plain wrong and un-American."
     Opponents, however, say Wilson and otherbackers misrepresent union practices and are supporting an unnecessarymeasure in order to silence unions while helping Republican candidatesand causes such as school vouchers.
     If approved, the measure would require thestate Fair Political Practices Commission to craft an authorization formto be signed by union members before their dues could be used. Union officialsare concerned that the commission, controlled by Wilson appointees, mightdawdle for months before producing that form.
     Such delays could effectively eliminate unionsas players in the November 1998 election, which includes key contests forgovernor, the U.S. Senate and much of the state Legislature.
     Jim Lewis, communications director for theState Building and Construction Trades Council, a union umbrella group,said dues deductions for political campaigns already are determined "democratically,probably far more so than business or industry [political action committees],in which stockholders have no say whatever."
     Upon joining a union, Lewis said, a workeris asked if dues can be deducted for political purposes. The worker canopt out then or any time later, depending on how he or she feels aboutthe candidate the union backs, he said.
     But Jim Righeimber, one of the authors ofthe initiative, said workers "are never told of that option."And if unions are already operating democratically, "they shouldn'tworry about our initiative," he said.
     Both measures will be given proposition numbersnext month, state election officials said.
     Times staff writer Max Vanzi contributedto this report.