California's Latino Divide Over Bilingual Education
In latest ballot initiative, Golden State considers best way to integrate immigrants.
Minority activists and education reformers are bracing for the next big, national debate on American civil rights - courtesy of a California ballot initiative.Skip to next paragraph
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Golden State voters barred public benefits for illegal immigrants in 1994 and ended affirmative action last year. Now, with signatures submitted for the June 1998, "English for the Children" initiative, battle lines are being drawn for what promises to be another heated war of values and rhetoric over bilingual education.
But exactly where Latinos stand on the issue is a matter of increasing debate. Despite a recent Los Angeles Times poll that found 84 percent of Hispanics are against continuing bilingual education, other surveys have indicated that this support is far from solid. And as leaders in the Latino community line up on both sides of the issue, the fight for the Hispanic vote is taking on greater urgency.
The new measure seeks to virtually eliminate bilingual programs in the state that is home to half the nation's 2.6 million public-school students who are considered "limited English proficient" (LEP). As activists in states such as Massachusetts, New York, and Florida gear up for local campaigns of their own, the California ballot brawl will generate public-policy implications from statehouses to courthouses and Congress.
"The whole country is watching California for the lessons this fight holds for how children everywhere should or shouldn't learn English," says Eric Stone, director of research at US English, a national organization dedicated to promoting English as the official language of the US.
At issue, he says, are how billions of dollars of public funds will be allocated, how such children will be taught, and how quickly - or slowly - non-English-speaking children can be assimilated into English-speaking society. Nationwide, between $6 billion and $12 billion per year is spent on 2.6 million students in bilingual education. About $4 billion to $5 billion is spent in California, where the number of LEP students has doubled in 10 years.
"The question is what learning English means for those of other language backgrounds in being able to fully participate in American society for the rest of their lives," says Mr. Stone.
The California initiative would replace several kinds of programs now offered with one year of intensive English instruction, during which academic study in other subjects would be on hold. It would require that children be taught in English unless enough parents - 20 per grade level - request bilingual education annually and in person.
Led by millionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, opponents of bilingual education here have submitted 700,000 signatures, fully expecting to fulfill the 433,269 needed to qualify for the June ballot. Backed by Mr. Unz's deep pockets - he has spent $200,000 of his own money so far - the antibilingual forces have gotten off to a quick start, dominating the state and national media with their message that California's 30-year experiment with bilingual education has failed.
"Bilingual education began with the best of intentions, but it's been 30 years and they've never gotten it right," says Unz, who ran against Pete Wilson in the 1996 GOP gubernatorial primary here, garnering 30 percent of the vote. "It's time to end it," he says.