Los Angeles Times
Friday, February 6, 1998
Un Grito (a Call) to Battle
Schools: Bilingual teachers vow war on an initiative that would
change instruction of non-English speakers. They say the public doesn't
understand their classroom methods or what's at stake in vote.
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writer
SAN JOSE--They are the missionaries of bilingual education in a state
with more immigrant students than any other, true believers who have staked
their careers on the premise that teaching those children in two languages
is better than teaching in English alone.
Some grew up with a language other than English
in a time when educators shamed or punished students who spoke in their
native tongues. Others, born into America's linguistic majority, learned
the Spanish they needed to connect with its most prominent minority.
Now a statewide vote is approaching on a
ballot initiative that would repudiate their lives' work--a measure that
enrages, perplexes and distresses the thousands gathered here this week
at the annual conference of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education,
the nation's largest conclave of bilingual teachers and advocates.
To them, a vote to require English-only instruction
in public schools is a vote to toss children into the proverbial ocean
without a life vest. They fear that many of California's 1.4 million public
school children who are not fluent in English would sink.
"Sometimes, when I hear people talk,
I feel like crying and screaming," said Catherine King, 27, a bilingual
elementary school teacher from Sacramento who plans to resist the law if
it passes. "I really don't think that people who are supporting this
thing understand what will happen."
That "thing" is the "English
for the children" measure on the June 2 ballot, sponsored by Silicon
Valley businessman Ron K. Unz and Orange County schoolteacher Gloria Matta
Tuchman. Arguing that bilingual education has been a failure since it was
instituted in the 1970s, the two sponsors are seeking to replace native-language
programs in public schools with one year of English "immersion"
lessons before putting students into mainstream classes.
Educators who "willfully and repeatedly"
defy the law would be held personally liable for lawsuits. The measure
has fared well in public opinion surveys, and the initiative campaign is
funded largely by Unz's extensive personal fortune.
Leaders of CABE (pronounced KAH-bay), as
the bilingual education group is known, view the measure as perhaps the
gravest threat to their profession in nearly a quarter-century. And they
vowed to launch an all-out counterattack against what they charge is a
They put up "No on Unz" posters
depicting a teacher gagged with a scarf. They asked their troops to give
money and time. They gave fiery speeches, mindful that they need to rouse
their constituents. In years past, such battles have been fought in the
"We can no longer afford to be sleeping
giants," said Santiago Wood, superintendent of the 16,000-student
Alum Rock School District in San Jose, where four out of five students
have limited English skills, to a crowd Wednesday as the four-day conference
Another San Jose superintendent, Joe Coto
of the 23,000-student Eastside Union High School District, pleaded: "As
California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. So we have to defeat it
here in our own state, all right?"
But whether the fury will gel into a convincing
campaign remains to be seen. Many teachers at the conference, while not
conceding the election, said they are banking on the courts to stop the
measure. And others seemed more interested in workshops on "dual immersion"--an
increasingly popular method of teaching Spanish speakers English and vice
versa--than in strategy sessions on defeating Unz.
In fact, for connoisseurs, those who know
LEP (limited English proficient) from FEP (fully English proficient) and
their ESL (English as a second language) from their SDAIE (specially designed
academic instruction in English), the San Jose McEnery Convention Center
was a bilingual education bazaar. It was a place to shed political pressures,
swap stories with like-minded teachers from up and down the state, check
out new bilingual or native-language textbooks and, perhaps, look for a
Dozens of school districts, including Los
Angeles Unified and Santa Ana Unified, set up recruiting booths. With a
statewide shortage of bilingual teachers estimated at more than 26,000--and
growing daily as California reduces the size of elementary classes and
attracts more immigrants--personnel directors are scrambling to find qualified
instructors who speak Spanish or Asian languages, including Vietnamese
But the ballot initiative could hamper their
efforts--and prove a boon to educators in states where bilingual education
is less besieged. "We've had people here today come up and say, 'If
the Unz initiative passes, we are leaving,' " said Alejandra Sotomayor
of the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona.
Others who could be hurt include publishers
with a large stake in the California bilingual market, among them Scholastic
Inc., Houghton Mifflin Co., Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement and
CTB/McGraw Hill, all of which helped pay for the conference.
"I'm sure that our business would lose,"
said Teresa Mlawer, president of Lectorum Publications Inc., who was selling
storybooks including Dr. Seuss in translation ("Huevos Verdes con
Jamon," or "Green Eggs and Ham"). "But I'm not really
concerned about that. We have other markets--Texas, New York. I'm concerned
about the children."
Some teachers said they had already taken
the first steps toward political action.
Larry McKiernan, 26, who has taught in the
Pasadena Unified district for three years, said he went to a school board
meeting last month to support a resolution against the initiative.
Bea Gonzales, 55, of the San Diego County
Office of Education, who recalled being forced to forgo her native Spanish
as a schoolchild in Texas under penalty of a nickel fine for every breach,
said she had given the campaign $500. Its goal is $3 million; campaign
officials say they have raised more than $1 million.
Three teachers and a principal from the Placentia-Yorba
Linda Unified School District in Orange County said they had talked with
neighbors, spoken with state lawmakers, called radio shows and written
letters to the editors of newspapers, all of which had gone unpublished.
They said they are often frustrated that their message--that English is
taught in bilingual classrooms--is not getting through.
"It's very hard to educate somebody
who is not ready to listen," said Ligia Alvarado-Stowell, a third-grade
teacher at Topaz Elementary School in Fullerton. "People often forget
the 'bi' in bilingual, meaning two languages."
Strategists for the anti-Unz campaign, aware
of the difficulty of explaining bilingual education to skeptics in the
electorate, have decided that bilingual educators won't make the best spokesmen
for the cause. The bilingual association is not among the groups signing
the ballot argument against the initiative.
And word went out at the conference that
the campaign will not seek to defend bilingual education. Rather, it will
attack the initiative point by point as "untested," "experimental"
and, in the words of one critic, "Unz-American." An anti-initiative
consultant warned the educators that they needed to become "politically
bilingual," speaking in language voters can understand.
That approach may make good politics. But
it disappointed some people here who want the bilingual association to
do more in public.
"Hey, this is it," Frances Navarrette,
a bilingual teacher from Fresno, told a campaign strategy session. "If
we don't defeat the Unz initiative, this is the last time we're going to
get together. If we're going to go out, let's go out with a bang."