San Jose Mercury News

Tuesday, January 13, 1998

Honda Fighting English-Only Initiative
Former S.J. educator says ballot measure would take autonomy from school boards
By MICHAEL BAZELEY, Mercury News Staff Writer

Assemblyman Mike Honda of San Jose, who has dedicated much of his life to public education, is immersed in a desperate, uphill battle to undercut a bilingual ballot issue he says would rob schools of their autonomy.

Honda, a former principal and schoolteacher, said he will try again this week to gather support for a constitutional amendment that would bar the state from dictating "uniform methods of teaching" without proper review.

The proposal is aimed directly at Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz's "English for the Children Initiative," which would essentially eliminate bilingual education in the state and mandate English-only instruction.

The first-term Democrat says the Unz initiative, which has strong public support in early polls, "dictates a singular teaching methodology" and would rob school districts of control over how to educate their students.

"The Food and Drug Administration doesn't allow drug companies to try drugs on humans without extensive testing first," Honda said. "Shouldn't it be the same with public schools? This (amendment) is to prevent our kids from being treated like guinea pigs."

A spokeswoman for the initiative, Sherri Annis, shrugged off Honda's measure as "a blatant attempt to override our initiative.

"I don't think anybody's going to take it very seriously," Annis said. "I see this as just another way to try to maintain the (bilingual) programs. They probably realize we're going to win."

Under the initiative, students with little or no English skills would be placed into a "structured English immersion" class for one year and then moved into regular English-language classrooms. Nearly 1.4 million California schoolchildren are considered to have limited proficiency in English.

Honda's measure, dubbed the "School Board Bill of Rights," would require all teaching methods intended for California schools to first be tested by a panel of "educational experts" and deemed "objectively superior" to other methods.

A Japanese-American who was interned with his family during World War II, Honda is no stranger to issues affecting immigrants.

Last year, he introduced a resolution in the Assembly calling for a day of remembrance for the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned during the war. And as a Santa Clara County supervisor in 1996, he voted in favor of printing a Chinese-English version of the county's sample ballot.

Educator for 20 years

Honda is also a former member of the San Jose Unified School District board, and he said his education experience has made him a strong believer in local government control.

"I'm a teacher. I've been a teacher for 20 years," he said. "I've worked in the classroom for 20 years. I've been a school board member. I know what I'm talking about."

Local control has been one of the key issues in the debate over the Unz initiative.

Opponents say that by mandating English instruction, the initiative restricts the freedom of school districts to design programs they believe best meet the needs of their students.

But Annis said giving local school boards or districts decision-making power is not necessarily any better than letting lawmakers or bureaucrats in Sacramento decide what is best for schoolchildren.

"If you truly give local districts control, they're just going to keep the same failed programs they always have," Annis said. "We want parent control."

Honda must clear several hurdles to turn his idea into law.

Still needs waiver

To place it on the June ballot, he needs the votes of two-thirds of the Assembly and two-thirds of the Senate by Jan. 22. But before lawmakers can cast any votes, the proposal has to pass through a mandatory 30-day waiting period intended for public hearings.

Honda sought a waiver from the waiting period last Thursday, but failed. He needed the support of 60 Assembly members but could get only 42 votes.

He vowed to try again today.

Honda said his proposal should appeal to conservative lawmakers, given their usually strong support of giving schools more decision-making authority.

"It's ironic, really, that a Democrat has taken on a Republican issue," he said. "Their platform is that public education would be better if schools had more local control."

Assembly GOP leader Bill Leonard of Upland voted against granting Honda the waiver but said he was "intrigued" by the proposal and is not yet ready to dismiss it.

"All of us like to say we're for local control for our schools," Leonard said, "but whether we can give it to them or not is another matter. My question is, am I giving up all ability to exercise governing over the public schools?"

Search for GOP support

Leonard told Honda that if he wants support from Assembly Republicans, he should come back this week with a "long list of political supporters." Honda flew to Los Angeles on Friday seeking support from Republican leaders.

Honda already has an ally in the California School Boards Association, which represents the interests of nearly 1,000 boards of education. The association is helping Honda find support for the measure, said Kevin Gordon, assistant executive director of governmental relations.

"We're not into pursuing legislation if it doesn't have a chance of prevailing," said Gordon. "We believe the Unz initiative will be extremely prescriptive. It's one size fits all."