Sacramento Bee

October 9, 1997

Issa ads support bilingual initiative
By MARY LYNNE VELLINGA, Bee Capitol Bureau

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Darrell Issa is diving into the debate over bilingual education with a radio ad endorsing a proposed ballot initiative to effectively end instruction of California public schoolchildren in languages other than English.

The ads come in the midst of a $2 million radio campaign by Issa, a suburban San Diego car alarm magnate who has never run for public office before.

Issa's ads are unusual because candidates typically don't run advertising so early in a campaign. The proposed bilingual education initiative hasn't yet qualified for the ballot, and the 1998 general election is more than a year away.

Ron Unz, leader of the "English for the Children Initiative," said Issa's ads could give an unexpected boost to the campaign. Initiative proponents have started gathering signatures, but Unz said any advertising is a long way off.

The measure would require that all California public school instruction be conducted in English, allowing exceptions in limited circumstances when parents request it.

"I certainly think it's a very big plus to have people running for office endorsing our initiative, especially if they're spending money spreading the word," said Unz, a millionaire software developer.

Issa's ads are running on talk and religious radio stations in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and throughout the Central Valley.

In his latest advertisement, Issa says, "It's shocking to hear that 1.3 million California schoolchildren are not proficient in English -- and that our schools are failing most of them.

"They're trapped in a language system, based on the use of bilingual education, that has a failure rate of 95 percent," the ad continues.

Norm Gold, manager for bilingual compliance at the state Department of Education, said the ad is somewhat misleading.

First of all, the notion that all of the state's limited-English students are receiving instruction in languages other than English is false, he said. Only 30 percent of those students now receive instruction in their native language, the traditional definition of bilingual education.

Issa's "95 percent failure rate" refers to data showing that only 5 percent of students with limited English skills are reclassified as fluent in English each year.

But Gold said the figure for 1997 is closer to 6.7 percent. He said even that number does not accurately reflect the program's overall success.

"It's akin to saying that if you have a high school of 1,000 kids, and 200 graduate each year, you have an 80 percent failure rate," he said.

Yet even supporters of bilingual education concede that the current system has problems. And polls show that the Unz initiative enjoys potentially strong support from voters, said Ray McNally, a campaign consultant for state Treasurer Matt Fong, who is running against Issa for the Republican Senate nomination.

Fong also has endorsed the initiative, despite concern among Republican Party leaders that it could further alienate the GOP from Latino voters offended by the party's support of measures to dismantle affirmative action and cut off public services to illegal immigrants.

The other Republican primary candidate, San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, has not yet taken a position on the Unz initiative.