Next Big Push From California: No Bilingual Ed

In new test of immigrant rights, a 1998 vote would nix classes in native tongues

California - home to half the nation's immigrants - has begun what promises to be another soul-searching debate over what constitutes just treatment of America's minorities and its newest residents.

In 1994, Prop. 187 denied education and medical attention to illegal aliens, and last year's Prop. 209 took aim at affirmative action. The target this time: bilingual education in a state with half of all children in the US considered not proficient in English.

"After 25 years of trying, California has proved that bilingual education doesn't work," says Ron Unz, a multimillionaire software entrepreneur in Palo Alto who is underwriting the measure for next year's ballot. Citing a 95 percent failure rate in the state's current program, and polls showing a great majority of minorities prefer English immersion, Mr. Unz is readying his initiative (entitled "English for the Children") for next year's ballot.

The measure would virtually abolish bilingual instruction for 1.3 million public school students who are considered "limited English proficient." Currently these students are put in classrooms where at least part of the teaching happens in their native tongue. The new plan would mandate that all California public-school children be taught in English, and that parents who still want bilingual classes sign a special request.

"We hope this sounds the death knell for bilingual programs in other states as well," adds Unz, who got a third of the vote against Gov. Pete Wilson before losing the 1996 GOP primary.

After meeting with Latino parents who were protesting bilingual policies that kept their children in Spanish-language classes, Unz noticed that nearly a dozen bilingual reform measures had stalled in the state legislature. He decided a citizen initiative was the only way to break the logjam.

He argues that bilingual classes cost too much and that children come out of them not knowing English and therefore not being able to function in society.

The issue is heating up nationwide. Because of tight education budgets, and because reformers elsewhere have taken aim at bilingual programs, California's plan is likely to attract great attention.

In Massachusetts, lawmakers are considering a plan that would screen applicants, limit participation to three years, and set stricter standards for bilingual teachers. Michigan and New Jersey in 1995 adopted measures easing some mandates.

California's laws requiring bilingual education expired 10 years ago, and there have been many pushes to replace the programs with English-immersion classes. But because of political inertia, say Unz and others, and self-interest of school systems and bilingual educators, they will continue unless citizens act.

"Bilingual education in America is a cash cow for the schools that have these programs," says Mauro Mujica, director of US English, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. Saying California spends $4 billion annually - and the US spends $12 billion - on bilingual education, he adds that any state trying to nix the classes will "have a horrendous fight on its hands."

But defenders of the beleaguered system say the changes would harm minority students.

Immigrants aren't likely to sign up for bilingual classes, even though they would still be available in limited form, argues Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Association of Bilingual Educators. They will feel a "cultural reticence" to argue for bilingual classes, she says.

And without bilingual classes, critics worry some students will fall behind in subjects taught in English - such as math and social science. Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Center in Claremont, Calif., fears a return to failed policies of immersion in which immigrants are placed in English-only classes and asked to "sink or swim."

Opponents concede the initiative will get the 433,269 signatures it needs to qualify for the ballot. Many acknowledge it will be tough to defeat.

But they still argue that the campaign on the issue will be ripe for rhetoric and confusion - and that, based on court challenges to both Props. 187 and 209, perhaps the issue is best left out of the citizen-initiative process.

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