A Critical Look at the Unz Initiative: 
"English for the Children"

Prepared by Dr. Lois M. Meyer
Department of Elementary Education
San Francisco State University
Spring 1998

Supporters of the Unz Initiative easily gathered enough signatures to place the initiative, titled "English for the Children," on the June 1998 California ballot. Several polls in recent months have predicted that the initiative will pass in the June voting.

It is crucial that every teacher and every voter committed to quality education and equal opportunity for California's linguistically diverse students:

  1. understand what is at risk in this initiative for ALL California students, not just English learners, and ALL California teachers, not just bilingual teachers;
  2. investigate and clarify for him or herself what is truth and what is myth and misrepresentation concerning bilingual education and the educational needs of English learners;
  3. speak knowledgeably with friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances about these issues;
  4. work and organize actively to publicize the truth about these issues;
  5. vote and encourage others to vote in June, especially affected parents and community members and also concerned citizens of every color and community.
The text of the initiative below is as it will appear on the June 1998 California ballot. Into the sections and articles of the initiative I have inserted Analysis Boxes with enclosed commentary, questions, and suggested readings. Only the information within these boxes has been added to the original text. The intent of each Analysis Box is to foment open discussion, critical reflection, and research-based analysis of the preceding text and embedded claims of the initiative. The claims of the Unz initiative, and more importantly, the critical research issues raised within each Analysis Box, will provide major topics of discussion and analysis in our course this semester. ­ Lois Meyer

The Unz Initiative 
by Ron K. Unz and Gloria Matta Tuchman

SECTION 1. Chapter 3 (commencing with Section 300) is added to Part 1 of the Educational Code, to read:


ANALYSIS BOX #1: The chapter heading indicates that the focal concern of the Unz initiative is the education of immigrant children.

  1. Are all English learners in California schools immigrant children? What percentage are born outside the U.S.? What percentage are U.S. born? Does the initiative intend to affect only the educational choices and learning experiences of foreign-born immigrant students, or will its provisions affect ALL English learners?
  2. As you read the initiative, watch carefully to see if Unz maintains the focus on immigrant children throughout the text, or broadens it to include all English learners.
  3. Look at the demographic data of a specific Bay Area school and a classroom within that school. Do districts and schools report which children are immigrant and which are U.S. born? What is the breakdown of immigrant/U.S. born students in the classroom you have selected? Does the classroom teacher know which of her/his students are immigrant and which are U.S. born? If the teacher knows this information, how did he/she find out? Is this information relevant to the teacher to know? Why? Does it affect the children's English acquisition in any way? Does it affect their learning of core curriculum? Explain your responses.
ARTICLE 1. Findings and Declarations

300. The People of California find and declare as follows:

(a) WHEREAS the English language is the national public language of the United States of America and of the state of California, is spoken by the vast majority of California residents, and is also the leading world language for science, technology, and international business, thereby being the language of economic opportunity; and


  1. The Unz initiative claims that "the English language is the national public language of the United States of America and of the state of California." Yet in 1986, according to Crawford (1992), the state's attorney general warned Californians that Proposition 63, the Official English initiative then on the ballot, would violate the Spanish language rights guaranteed under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty ended the Mexican-American War in 1848. In 1998 we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. What about the language rights it promised? Read further in Crawford, especially chapters 2 and 3, and in other sources (e.g. Acuña 1988, Zinn 1995, especially chapter 8) about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Also investigate the histories of Puerto Rico, the Louisiana Purchase, the state of New Mexico, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. What has been and still is the complex truth of language rights, and broken treaties, in U.S. history? Do these treaties still count? How would you respond to Unz's claim?
  2. The Unz initiative claims that English "is spoken by the vast majority of California residents." So consider this paradox: Olsen (1997) reports that in the 1980s, "the United States experienced the largest flow of immigrants since the turn of the last century According to the U.S. Census, by 1990 there were nearly twenty million foreign-born residents in the Unites States, the most in the nation's history." Still, Crawford (1992) reports: "The number of U.S. residents who speak a minority tongue at home increased by 41 percent during the 1980s. Yet at the same time, all available evidence shows that today's immigrants are learning English faster than ever before. By objective measures, bilingualism is no more prevalent now than in several earlier periods of U.S. history." Read further in Crawford and in Perea (1997). How do these authors explain the present public pressure for English Only education and legislation, given the fact that English is being learned faster by today's immigrants than it was by those in the past?
(b) WHEREAS immigrant parents are eager to have their children acquire a good knowledge of English, thereby allowing them to fully participate in the American Dream of economic and social advancement; and


  1. The Unz initiative claims that "immigrant parents are eager to have their children acquire a good knowledge of English." While this is certainly true in most cases, are they eager for English to replace the children's proficiency in the family language? Investigate this question. Read Wong Fillmore's article on language loss. Talk to immigrant parents you know. What are their feelings about losing the home language? How do they think it will be retained? If their children have lost or are losing the family language, what are some of the consequences within family relationships? How would you respond to Unz's claim?
  2. The Unz initiative claims that "acquiring a good knowledge of English" allows one to "fully participate in the American Dream of economic and social advancement. " Is this true? What groups in the United States stand as counter-examples to this claim by Unz? Investigate any number of possible sources here. Some to consider: Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol (1991), Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society by Jim Cummins (1996), Ways with Words by Shirley Brice Heath (1983), Occupied America by Rodolfo Acuña (1988), Dismantling Desegregation by Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton (1996), especially chapter 3; A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1995); Dangerous Memories by the Chicago Religious Task Force (1991); Latinos and Education by Darder, Torres, and Gutiérrez (1997); Border Visions by Velez-Ibañez (1996); Made in America by Laurie Olsen (1997). How would you respond to Unz's claim?
(c) WHEREAS the government and the public schools of California have a moral obligation and a constitutional duty to provide all of California's children, regardless of their ethnicity or national origins, with the skills necessary to become productive members of our society, and of these skills, literacy in the English language is among the most important; and


  1. According to the Unz initiative, the U.S. Constitution requires that the government and public schools of California teach English literacy as one of the most important of the skills "necessary to become productive members of our society." In the Lau vs. Nichols decision, the Supreme Court determined the constitutional rights of non-English proficient students in U.S. schools. What are those rights? What did the Supreme Court specifically say about English proficiency and literacy when it spoke of non-English speakers' rights to an equal education? How would you respond to Unz's claim? Crawford (1995) is one possible source.
(d) WHEREAS the public schools of California currently do a poor job of educating immigrant children, wasting financial resources on costly experimental language programs whose failure over the past two decades is demonstrated by the current high drop-out rates and low English literacy levels of many immigrant children; and


  1. The Unz initiative implies that bilingual education programs are "costly experimental language programs." Investigate the history of bilingual education in the U.S. (Crawford 1992, 1995). Are these programs "experimental." How would you respond to Unz's claim?
  2. The Unz initiative implies that bilingual education programs have failed to educate English learners well, and have caused "high drop-out rates and low English literacy levels of many immigrant children." How many English learners in the U.S. and in California actually are educated in bilingual programs? Can the present levels of academic achievement of English learners be "blamed" or "credited" to bilingual education programs? How would you respond to Unz's claim?
  3. What are the results of research studies comparing bilingual programs with other educational programs for English learners? Investigate both the Ramirez and the Thomas/Collier studies (Crawford 1995; Rojas and Apodaca 1997). In which program types has the educational achievement of English learners been greatest? In which program types have English learners achieved least? How would you respond to Unz's claim?
  4. (e) WHEREAS young immigrant children can easily acquire full fluency in a new language, such as English, if they are heavily exposed to that language in the classroom at an early age.
    1. The Unz initiative claims that young children acquire "full fluency" in English if they are "heavily exposed" to English at a young age. Investigate Cummins' analysis of the complex levels and aspects of language proficiency (1996). What do you think Unz means by "full fluency"? Does a young child possess "full fluency" in any language, even the first? Also, investigate the age issue in second language learning. Consult McLaughlin's and Wong-Fillmore's articles, and also Crawford (1995) and Cummins (1996). What does research tell us about exposing immigrant children solely to a new and unfamiliar second language when they are young? What are the consequences? How would you respond to Unz's claim?
(f) THEREFORE it is resolved that: all children in California public schools shall be taught English as rapidly and effectively as possible.


  1. In Article 9 at the end of the initiative, Unz states that, in the case of disputes over proper interpretation of the initiative, Section 300 "shall be assumed to contain the governing intent of the statute." The above section, then, is the heart of Unz's effort to legislate the educational experience of English learners in California schools. Are you as a future California teacher in favor of his call for educational programs that teach English learners English "as rapidly and effectively as possible"? Given our knowledge about second language acquisition, do the requirements specified in Section 305 below lead to this goal? How would YOU recommend that the goal of rapid and effective English teaching be achieved? Ground your response in research and appropriate documentation.
ARTICLE 2. English Language Education

305. Subject to the exceptions provided in Article 3 (commencing with Section 310), all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English. In particular, this shall require that all children be placed in English language classrooms. Children who are English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year. Local schools shall be permitted to place in the same classroom English learners of different ages but whose degree of English proficiency is similar. Local schools shall be encouraged to mix together in the same classroom English learners from different native-language groups but with the same degree of English fluency. Once English learners have acquired a good working knowledge of English, they shall be transferred to English language mainstream classrooms. As much as possible, current supplemental funding for English learners shall be maintained, subject to possible modification under Article 8 (commencing with Section 335) below.


Unz specifies that virtually "all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English," in classrooms with the following characteristics:

  1. In Unz's mandated program design, into what kind of classroom would a NEP or low LEP student be placed? Describe its details and required program. For how long would the student be permitted in this classroom? Into what kind of classroom would a low-intermediate or intermediate LEP student be placed? For how long? What would its program be? What would be the placement for an advanced LEP student who still required SDAIE strategies for comprehending and learning academic content? What implications do these instructional program specifications have for ELD teachers? What implications do they have for mainstream English teachers? What implications do they have for bilingual teachers?
  2. What do you understand "a good working knowledge of English" to mean? What criteria would you look for as a teacher to determine whether the child had this level of English proficiency?
  3. What curriculum would Unz have children actually learn during their year of "intensive English immersion"? Is this intensive-language curriculum legal, given the Lau vs. Nichols Supreme Court case? Why, or why not?
  4. What does the research on second language learning in school (especially Ramirez and Thomas/Collier) say about the kind of instructional program Unz is trying to mandate for English learners? Given the research findings, what is the likely outcome for California's English learners if this initiative passes? Why? What are the advantages/disadvantages for English learners of this mandated program? What are the advantages/disadvantages for teachers of this mandated program?
306. The definitions of the terms used in this article and in Article 3 (commencing with Section 310) are as follows:

(a) "English learner" means a child who does not speak English or whose native language is not English and who is not currently able to perform ordinary classroom work in English, also known as a Limited English Proficiency or LEP child.

(b) "English language classroom" means a classroom in which the language of instruction used by the teaching personnel is overwhelmingly the English language, and in which such teaching personnel possess a good knowledge of the English language.

(c) "English language mainstream classroom" means a classroom in which the students either are native English language speakers or already have acquired reasonable fluency in English.

(d) "Sheltered English immersion" or "structured English immersion" means an English language acquisition process for young children in which nearly all classroom instruction is in English but with the curriculum and presentation designed for children who are learning the language.

(e) "Bilingual education/native language instruction" means a language acquisition process for students in which much or all instruction, textbooks, and teaching materials are in the child's native language.


  1. How do the definitions above compare with those we have discussed in class?
  2. What training and specific competencies does Unz require for the "English immersion" teacher?
  3. What training and specific competencies does Unz require for the English mainstream teacher?
  4. When, if ever, can the native language be used?
  5. Given the above definitions, what predictions could you make about what the reality will be in California classrooms, and what dilemmas will be faced by California teachers, if the Unz initiative passes?
ARTICLE 3. Parental Exceptions

310. The requirements of Section 305 may be waived with the prior written informed consent, to be provided annually, of the child's parents or legal guardian under the circumstances specified below and in Section 311. Such informed consent shall require that said parents or legal guardian personally visit the school to apply for the waiver and that they there be provided a full description of the educational materials to be used in the different educational program choices and all the educational opportunities available to the child. Under such parental waiver conditions, children may be transferred to classes where they are taught English and other subjects through bilingual education techniques or other generally recognized educational methodologies permitted by law. Individual schools in which 20 students or more of a given grade level receive a waiver shall be required to offer such a class; otherwise, they must allow the students to transfer to a public school in which such a class is offered.


  1. Unz specifies a complex and multileveled process which parents must go through in order to request a waiver from the required English immersion program. Talk to various teachers of English learners, and then talk to parents of English learners. What does each group say are some of the strengths, and weaknesses, of Unz's plan? How could parents or guardians realistically carry out the processes required by the initiative? What factors might make it difficult for parents/guardians of English learners to pursue a waiver for their child?
311. The circumstances in which a parental exception waiver may be granted under Section 310 are as follows:

(a) Children who already know English: the child already possesses good English language skills, as measured by standardized tests of English vocabulary comprehension, reading, and writing, in which the child scores at or above the state average for his grade level or at or above the 5th grade average, whichever is lower; or


  1. Who are these "children who already know English"? Study a specific ELD or bilingual classroom. How many children in the class meet Unz's criteria for English proficiency? Who are they? Does this section of the Unz initiative speak at all to the concern of effective education for English learners? Why do you think this section is included in the initiative?
(b) Older children: the child is age 10 years or older, and it is the informed belief of the school principal and educational staff that an alternate course of educational study would be better suited to the child's rapid acquisition of basic English language skills; or


  1. What assumptions does this exemption make about second language learning in children 10 years old or older? Investigate the age issue in second language learners. Are Unz's assumptions here accurate? Is age the only factor that matters? What other factors, alongwith age, would have to be considered? How would you respond to these assumptions by Unz?
  2. Who determines whether an "alternate course of educational study" would be best for the child, according to Unz? What are the criteria? What concerns can be raised about this process for deciding the child's needs and educational interests?
(c) Children with special needs; the child already has been placed for a period of not less than thirty days during that school year in an English language classroom and it is subsequently the informed belief of the school principal and educational staff that the child has such special physical, emotional, psychological, or educational needs that an alternate course of educational study would be better suited to the child's overall educational development. A written description of these special needs must be provided and any such decision is to be made subject to the examination and approval of the local school superintendent, under guidelines established by and subject to the review of the local Board of Education and ultimately the State Board of Education. The existence of such special needs shall not compel issuance of a waiver, and the parents shall be fully informed of their right to refuse to agree to a waiver.


Read the article carefully.

  1. Who are these "children with special needs"? What special needs do you think this section is referring to?
  2. What is required before a child with special needs will be given a waiver from the mandated English immersion program?
ARTICLE 4. Community-Based English Tutoring

315. In furtherance of its constitutional and legal requirement to offer special language assistance to children coming from backgrounds of limited English proficiency, the state shall encourage family members and others to provide personal English language tutoring to such children, and support these efforts by raising the general level of English language knowledge in the community. Commencing with the fiscal year in which this initiative is enacted and for each of the nine fiscal years following thereafter, a sum of fifty million dollars ($50,000,000) per year is hereby appropriated from the General Fund for the purpose of providing additional funding for free or subsidized programs of adult English language instruction to parents or other members of the community who pledge to provide personal English language tutoring to California school children with limited English proficiency.


Study this article carefully.

  1. What does it promise to parents and community members? What is expected of them in return? How do you think parents/community members will react to these promises and expectations? Investigate this with parents/community members who are affected, if possible.
  2. What does it promise to K-12 English learners? Consider carefully what Tough and others reveal about the factors necessary to enable children's acquisition and development of English, both interpersonal communication skills and academic English proficiency and literacy, and their broader academic success. In what ways might this article potentially benefit children's linguistic and academic success? What difficulties or disadvantages does it create for K-12 English learners, or for their parents or community members? Which outcome for English learners - benefit or disadvantage - do you feel is most likely and realistic? Why?
  3. Will the Unz initiative save taxpayers money? Document your response from the initiative itself.
316. Programs funded pursuant to this section shall be provided through schools or community organizations. Funding for these programs shall be administered by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and shall be disbursed at the discretion of the local school boards, under reasonable guidelines established by, and subject to the review of, the State 316. Board of Education.

ARTICLE 5. Legal Standing and Parental Enforcement

320. As detailed in Article 2 (commencing with Section 305) and Article 3 (commencing with Section 310), all California school children have the right to be provided with an English language public education. If a California school child has been denied the option of an English language instructional curriculum in public school, the child's parent or legal guardian shall have legal standing to sue for enforcement of the provisions of this statue, and if successful shall be awarded normal and customary attorney's fees and actual damages, but not punitive or consequential damages. Any school board member or other elected official or public school teacher or administrator who willfully and repeatedly refuses to implement the terms of this statute by providing such an English language educational option at an available public school to a California school child may be held personally liable for fees and actual damages by the child's parents or legal guardian.


The Unz initiative makes teachers, administrators, school board members, and other elected officials "personally liable" if they do not carry out Unz's stipulations. That is, these individuals can be sued.

  1. How do you feel teachers and other educators will respond to this threat of legal action and personal liability? How do you respond?
  2. What does the threat of personal liability do to educators' professional wisdom and decision-making?
  3. What does the threat of personal liability do to local, community, and parental voice and control of educational programs and decisions?
ARTICLE 6. Severability

325. If any part or parts of this statute are found to be in conflict with federal law or the United States or the California State Constitution, the statute shall be implemented to the maximum extent that federal law, and the United States and the California State Constitution permit. Any provision held invalid shall be severed from the remaining portions of this statute.

ARTICLE 7. Operative Date

330. This initiative shall become operative for all school terms which begin more than sixty days following the date at which it becomes effective.

ARTICLE 8. Amendment.

335. The provisions of this act may be amended by a statute that becomes effective upon approval by the electorate or by a statute to further the act's purpose passed by a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature and signed by the Governor.

ARTICLE 9. Interpretation

340. Under circumstances in which portions of this statute are subject to conflicting interpretations, Section 300 shall be assumed to contain the governing intent of the statute.

Available Resource Texts

The following texts or resource materials are referenced in the Analysis Boxes inserted into the copy of the Unz Initiative I prepared for our discussions. You are asked to read and probe into these materials, or in others, for deeper understanding and historical and research-based information with which to critically discuss and analyze Unz's claims. You are not expected to buy any of these books, though all of them are excellent resources to have in your professional library. You are responsible, however, for researching the topics identified in the Analysis Boxes through these materials or others which are relevant, and for coming to class prepared for critical discussion.

Acuña, Rodolfo. 1988. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. HarperCollins, NY.

Chicago Religious Task Force. 1991. Dangerous Memories. Chicago, IL.

Crawford, James. 1995. Bilingual Education: History, politics, theory and practice. Bilingual Education Services, Inc., Los Angeles, CA.

______________. 1992. Hold your tongue: Bilingualism and the politics of "English Only". Bilingual Education Services, Inc., Los Angeles, CA.

Cummins, Jim. 1996. Negotiating Identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. CABE, CA.

Darder, Antonia, Rodolfo Torres, and Henry Gutiérrez. 1997. Latinos and Education: A critical reader. Routledge, NY.

Genessee, Fred, ed. 1994. Educating second language children: The whole child, the whole curriculum, the whole community. Cambridge University Press, NY.

Heath, Shirley Brice. 1983. Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge Univ. Press, NY.

Kozol, Johathan. 1991. Savage Inequalities: Children in America's schools. Crown Publishers, NY.

Olsen, Laurie. 1997. Made in America: Immigrant students in our public schools. The New Press, NY.

Orfield, Gary, Susan E. Eaton, et al. 1996. Dismantling Desegregation: The quiet reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New Press, NY.

Perea, Juan F., ed. 1997. Immigrants Out!: The new nativism and the anti-immigrant impulse in the United States. New York University Press, NY.

Rojas, Waldemar, and Rosa Apodaca. 1997. SFUSD Language Academy and other bilingual programs: Promoting quality bilingual education for all students. San Francisco Unified School District.

Tough, Joan. 1985. Talk Two: Children using English as a second language. Onyx Press, London.

Velez-Ibañez, Carlos. 1996. Border Visions: Mexican cultures of the southwest United States. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ

Zinn, Howard. 1995. A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present. HarperCollins, NY.

Additional Course Materials

Mora, Jill Kerper. 1997. Analysis of the Impact of the Unz Initiative on Public Education in California.

California Dept. of Education, Bilingual Education Office. 1995. The State Program for Students of Limited-English Proficiency. (Summarized by Lois M. Meyer, SFSU).

McLaughlin, Barry. 1992. Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning: What Every Teacher Needs to Unlearn. National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.

Wong Fillmore, Lily. Language and cultural identity: What happens when languages are lost? AIO Ambassador's Summer Gathering, August 6, 1993. (This article has been published in a volume by Susan Ervin-Tripp.)