Los Angeles Times
Monday, March 23, 1998
Debate Loud as Vote Nears on Bilingual Ban
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writer
DANA POINT--Crisofero Fabian, a restaurant cook from Mexico and father
of three, believes that the immigrant students in this seaside town must
learn English to have a shot at a better life. Everyone at R.H. Dana Elementary
The question is how.
First-grade teacher Eliana Escobar is a true
believer in bilingual education. Principal David F. Gerhard wants to give
children more English instruction but preserve the bilingual safety net.
And Fabian? He favors an initiative on the
June 2 ballot that would drastically limit bilingual education in California
public schools, although two of his children are in bilingual classes here
and doing well.
"I want them to teach more English,"
Fabian said in his native Spanish. "Just in English. We can give them
Spanish at home. The children should learn to read and write English well.
They're going to need it."
Conversations with educators and parents
here echo the passionate debate in schools and communities statewide as
Proposition 227 heads for a vote. The measure is also being closely watched
in other states struggling to teach large numbers of immigrant children.
Education groups have lined up en masse to
denounce what they call a dangerous, unproven experiment and the strongest
threat in a generation to a controversial system of language instruction.
Initiative proponents say it is bilingual education that has been the failed
Beyond the rhetoric, something basic is at
stake: the education of many of California's most vulnerable children,
often poor and often let down by public schools.
Drafted last year by Silicon Valley software
businessman Ron K. Unz, Proposition 227 has grabbed a commanding lead in
public opinion polls on the strength of a simple--critics say simplistic--message:
"English for the Children."
The initiative calls for students with limited-English
skills to receive about a year of intensive English lessons and then move
into regular classes. Few exceptions would be allowed, and educators who
repeatedly violate the law could be sued. It would take effect two months
California is the nation's most important
bilingual education battleground, with 1.4 million students who have poor
command of English, far more than any other state. Nationwide, there are
more than 3 million such students.
Because four out of five limited-English
students in California speak Spanish, the issue is of prime importance
to Latino leaders. Some view Proposition 227 as a sequel to propositions
187 and 209, passed by voters in 1994 and 1996, respectively. Those measures
struck at illegal immigration and affirmative action and provoked national
"Hasn't the state had enough? Do we
need another racially charged, sharp-edged debate about a hot-button, political
wedge issue?" asked Charles Kamasaki, a vice president of the National
Council of La Raza, a Latino rights organization.
'An Unbelievably Powerful Wedge Issue'
Ambivalence about bilingual education runs
deep in American history. English-only advocates have frequently sought
to suppress the classroom use of German, French, Spanish and other tongues
in the name of national unity. The pro-227 campaign raises a similar theme
on its World Wide Web site:
If approved, Proposition 227 would be
the first state voter initiative to limit the use of students' native languages
for instruction in public schools. It would also mark the end of an educational
era in California that dates to 1967, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed
a law ending the state's requirement for English-only instruction.
Unz, 36, who ran for governor in 1994 as
a maverick Republican, acknowledges that he has never inspected a bilingual
classroom. He dismisses as "garbage" some research that supports
bilingual education. And he denies that his motivations are anti-Latino
or anti-immigrant, citing strong support in polls from people like Fabian.
"This has been an unbelievably powerful
wedge issue--except that it divides the leaders in California from everybody
else in the state," Unz said.
Indeed, Unz has virtually no support from
the state's education establishment, even from those who are skeptical
of bilingual education.
The school board in southern Orange County's
Capistrano Unified School District this month voted to scale back native-language
instruction after administrators determined that their limited-English
students showed little progress after as many as seven years of bilingual
classes. The new program sets an exit goal of one or two years.
Yet on the same night that the school board
struck a blow against bilingual education, it voted unanimously to oppose
The message was: Yes, the system is broken,
but don't tell us how to fix it.
"I have more of a middle-of-the-road
stance," said Gerhard, the R.H. Dana principal. "We need to do
something different to try to transition our kids more quickly. But it
concerns me that my school board is losing power if this initiative is
going to pass."
Proposition 227 was born after a 1996 boycott
of a school in the downtown Los Angeles garment district. Community activist
Alice Callaghan led a group of Latino parents that year in a protest publicizing
their discontent with bilingual education and their demand that the district
switch more than 80 children into English-only classes.
"Education is their only hope for a
better future for their children," Callaghan, a self-described liberal,
later wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. "The first step is
Unz says the boycott prompted him to make
inquiries about bilingual programs statewide. He found a situation ripe
for an initiative.
A state law mandating bilingual education
had expired in 1987, the year after California voters overwhelmingly approved
a proposition that declared English the state's official language. Subsequent
efforts by the Legislature to replace the law had failed repeatedly. There
was a legal vacuum.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Education
maintained a pro-bilingual education policy although the state faced an
increasing shortage of qualified bilingual teachers. The shortage is now
estimated at more than 20,000 and is especially critical for Vietnamese,
Hmong, Cantonese, Pilipino, Khmer and Korean, the most spoken minority
languages after Spanish.
Several school districts chafed at state
regulation that they contended had no legal justification. Starting in
1996, four Orange County districts were granted permission to opt out of
bilingual education altogether. This month, the State Board of Education
voted unanimously that such permission would no longer be required, in
effect shifting power into local hands.
A self-made millionaire, Unz could afford
to hire the professional signature gatherers needed to qualify an initiative
for the statewide ballot.
He obtained early support from Latino educators
such as Gloria Matta Tuchman, an Orange County schoolteacher now running
for state superintendent of public instruction, and Jaime Escalante, a
former Los Angeles high school calculus teacher made famous in the movie
"Stand and Deliver." He also persuaded the state Republican Party
to endorse the initiative against its leadership's wishes.
Unz's opponents have gathered a much longer
list of endorsements, from state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin
to the state PTA to dozens of school districts.
But from the start, opponents have struggled
to fulfill two necessities for an effective campaign: money and a message.
Money is in short supply because educators this year are waging campaigns
on several fronts. The message is complicated by the difficulty of defending
bilingual education in terms voters understand.
Researchers who support bilingual education
say many students need instruction in their native languages as they are
learning English, or else they will fall behind.
Bilingual education advocates have made that
point over and over. But a statewide Field Poll released Friday shows Proposition
227 is leading 3 to 1 among likely voters and, perhaps more troubling for
the opposition, is widely known.
What voters do understand is that Latino
students are dropping out of school in alarming numbers, and that many
limited-English students are not moving into mainstream English classes.
Unz blames bilingual education, in large
part, for both ills. But despite his claims, only three in 10 limited-English
students in a given year are in formal bilingual programs. Twenty percent
get informal help in their native language, and the rest are taught almost
entirely in English, by choice or necessity. State records show, too, that
many school districts with English-intensive programs perform no better
than their bilingual counterparts.
Teachers in Fighting Mood
Faced with these challenges, the anti-227
campaign is seeking to put the spotlight on Unz. Its Web site (http://www.noonunz.org)
advises supporters: "DO NOT get into a discussion defending bilingual
education." It is better, the opposition campaign says, to attack
the initiative as an unwanted, costly mandate. If it passes, some teachers
are talking about civil disobedience.
"I do sense that teachers are in a fighting
mood. It probably is worse than any threat they've ever experienced,"
said James J. Lyons, executive director of the National Assn. for Bilingual
Education in Washington.
"I'm encountering teachers who say,
'If it becomes the law, then I will become a lawbreaker. I cannot go back
to looking at children and seeing the spark of learning dimmed in their
eyes as I speak to them in a language that they don't understand."'
At R.H. Dana Elementary, Escobar says she
knows that her bilingual class is making headway. On a recent day, she
was teaching her first-graders how to form palabras (words) and oraciones
(sentences). Escobar switched freely between English and Spanish as she
made her points, and the students followed closely.
At one point in a grammar lesson, Escobar
asked the class what it would do with a pot of gold, and Daniel Lagunes
raised his hand. "Maestra, yo se, yo se! Comprariamos un carro nuevo,"
he said. ("Teacher, I know, I know! We would buy a new car.")
Daniel, Escobar said later, had recently
arrived from Mexico and was rapidly catching up to his peers. With another
year of bilingual instruction, she predicted, he would be a candidate for
"It's a painful subject," Escobar
said of the initiative. "I can't even begin to explain to somebody
the pain and fright that children are going to feel if they are thrown
into an all-English classroom."