San Diego Union-Tribune

Wednesday, March 18, 1998

Bilingual Education Foe Pushes Initiative

Although scores of politicians and educators are rallying against an initiative to end most of the state's current bilingual education programs, the measure's author insists it is the best way to change what many acknowledge is a failing system.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley businessman behind Proposition 227 on the ballot June 2, calls bilingual education in the United States a 30-year experiment that is "utterly, utterly unsuccessful."

Instead, Unz proposes to eliminate bilingual education programs in favor of a program called "sheltered English immersion." Students would be taught mainly in English, with teachers using gestures and pictures to reinforce academic content.

Responding to questions of The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board yesterday, Unz railed against bilingual education's stronghold in California schools.

"This is a system that has gotten very entrenched over the last 30 years," Unz said. "The statistics are so dreadful that politicians would have to explain why they have not done anything for the past 30 years."

Unz said he has always been skeptical of the bilingual education system, and has questioned for years whether it has worked. As he gathered information for his initiative, he said he found that only 5 percent of the students in California identified as limited-English proficient are re-designated as fluent English speakers each year.

"Maybe bilingual education does work under controlled laboratories," said Unz, a physicist by training. "But it never seems to work anywhere on a large scale."

Rosalia Salinas, director of bilingual education for the county Office of Education, disputed Unz's 5 percent figure.

Because non-English speakers go through a series of achievement levels before they are considered fluent English speakers, not all 1.4 million of those students are eligible for the re-designation each year.

"If you have a high school with 100 kids and 25 of them are seniors, only 25 percent of them have a chance for graduation," Salinas said. "That doesn't mean you have a 75 percent failure rate.

"He's assuming that because they haven't made the transition they are a failure," Salinas said. "That's preposterous in education terms."

Even with the state Board of Education's unanimous decision last week allowing districts to decide on how best to teach bilingual education, it will mean more of the status quo, Unz said.

"Every school district claims their bilingual education program works and if told they could go on with it, they would," Unz said.

He did, however, leave room for other bilingual instruction methods.

"Under the initiative's structure, programs that are popular with parents, that have successful track records could continue under minor changes," Unz said.

One of those changes would be annual waivers parents must sign to exempt their children from English-only instruction. Those waivers, however, would not be enacted for 30 days after the school year started, meaning students would be instructed in English for 30 days and then switched to their bilingual curriculum.