San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, November 2, 1997

CALIFORNIA INSIDER
A Few `Facts' to Fuel the Debate on How to Teach Our Kids
As legislators use anecdotes to argue a ballot measure that would change the way English is taught in California schools, a personal grudge keeps the governor from lending his support.

By ROBERT B. GUNNISON, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO -- From the mouth of Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer comes this observation: ``The plural of anecdote is not evidence.''

Ron Unz, a politically ambitious electronics millionaire, has lost control of his usual libertarian urges in order to support an initiative for the ballot next year that would end California's statewide commitment to teaching pupils in their native languages until they had mastered English. His campaign is based largely on the anecdotes of a handful of angry parents. Evidence is hard to find.

Some opponents of the Unz measure will see this as the son of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigrant measure of 1994, and Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure passed last year.

But many backers of those measures, most notably Governor Pete Wilson, have not eagerly jumped aboard the Unz initiative.

Unz says his measure is inspired by the protests of parents at an elementary school in the poorest precincts of downtown Los Angeles with a high percentage of Spanish-speaking pupils. Last winter, a group of parents led a boycott of classes because school administrators refused to overhaul the district's bilingual education program to their liking. The parents wanted classes taught in English, in what Unz and his allies call ``immersion.'' The district says the learning of English is best accomplished if pupils learn how to read and write in their native languages first.

Exactly how many parents really wanted immersion classes is open to debate. But the incident has become the Concord Bridge for the anti-bilingual forces.

Beleaguered minority parents battling heartless bureaucrats over the right to let their children learn English is certainly an appealing political image for Unz to employ.

Rather than right what wrong might have occurred at Ninth Street School, Unz wants to end bilingual education statewide. If his solution doesn't work, well, tough luck. Changes to the initiative would require a vote of the people or a two- thirds majority by the Legislature and signature by the governor.

The religious fervor that prevents rational discussion of property-tax cutting Proposition 13 of 1978, or of Proposition 98, the special river of tax money for public schools, demonstrates what happens when voters sanctify an initiative. Change is almost impossible.

Oddly enough, there is an answer available -- from, of all places, the Legislature.

Senator DeDe Alpert, D-Coronado, and Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, R-Los Olivos, have written a bill that would allow school districts to design their own bilingual education programs. They could even have the kind of program Unz wants. This is the sort of approach that local control advocates could be expected to support, but they rarely allow themselves to do so.

Many conservatives see bilingual education as another form of multiculturalism. And in political terms, that takes a backseat to local control.

It is not that backers of bilingual education have entirely pure motives, either. There are union jobs at stake here. But it is worth noting that the California Teachers Association backs the Alpert bill, as does the Association of California School Administrators.

Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante, D-Fresno, a supporter of bilingual education, has agreed to let the Alpert-Firestone measure come to a vote next year. The bill has already passed the Senate and could reach Wilson's desk.

Wilson is not eager to do Unz any favors. It was Unz who ran against Wilson in the GOP primary three years ago and captured an embarrassingly large 34 percent of the vote as a virtual but pesky unknown.

It may be up to Wilson to try to save California from government by anecdote. But it may be too late.