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Bilingual Educators Urged To Join Political Fight

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At their annual meeting here, bilingual educators got more than the latest thinking on how to teach language-minority students. They also learned about political activism and immigration policy.

National Association for Bilingual Education leaders announced a campaign at their meeting here, held Feb. 14-18, to fight California's Proposition 187 and prevent what the group sees as similar "racist and extremist" measures from taking root in other states.

"Our teachers are the best line of defense for the rights of students," James J. Lyons, the executive director of NABE, said in an interview.

Proposition 187, which California voters passed overwhelmingly on Nov. 8, would deny illegal immigrants most social services, including public education. (See related stories, 11/16/94 and 11/23/94 .)

It also would require educators to report students suspected of being in the country illegally to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and various state officials.

Judges in both state and federal courts have blocked implementation of the measure's education provisions while lawsuits challenging them are proceeding. Trials are expected as early as this summer.

Grassroots organizations are promoting similar initiatives in several states, including Florida, Colorado, and Arizona. (See Education Week, Nov. 30, 1994.)

Mr. Lyons and others at the meeting here warned that the sentiment embodied in the California measure could manifest itself in attacks on all students who look and sound different--not just undocumented immigrants.

'Fear Is Very Real'

In preparation for its campaign, NABE recently joined the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based coalition of more than 200 organizations, ranging from religious and civil-rights groups to trade unions and representatives of state and local governments.

In the next few months, NABE also plans to work with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials to develop a strategy for educators to help immigrant students and their families legalize their status or become U.S. citizens and, ultimately, voters.

"Often an immigrant family's only connection with 'official America' is through the school and their children," said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the Latino officials' group.

At the many conference sessions devoted to Proposition 187, California educators described the chilling effect it has had on their classrooms, heightening tensions and, in some cases, causing enrollment to drop.

Those sessions also drew educators from other states who dread the prospects of such a movement hitting their home states.

"The climate for something like 187 is there in my state," said Nancy L. Commins, who directs bilingual-education programs at Casey Middle School in Boulder, Colo.

Frank Sharry, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told a packed audience that the anti-immigrant movement is likely to get bigger.

"This backlash is real," he said, "and this backlash has legs."

Mr. Sharry noted that in 23 other states, citizens have the same right to put initiatives on ballots.

In one session, Mr. Vargas blamed Proposition 187's success in part on an opposition strategy that he said was too little, too late.

"We're still playing catch-up now" in other states, he said.

Speakers at another session urged educators to fight such measures by running for public office.

Mr. Vargas underlined the fact that 40 percent of the country's Latino elected officials are school board members.

Educators as Advocates

Rosa Castro Feinberg, the sole Hispanic representative on the seven-member Dade County, Fla., school board and a former teacher, implored audience members to follow her example of political activism.

"Educators historically are trained to be uncomfortable with anything that smacks of politics, but we have to be part of politics," Ms. Feinberg said in an interview. "We don't have any choice."

While many educators interviewed here said they would take risks and become more involved with students and their families, others said they feared increased activism might fuel a greater backlash.

"I think we have to be careful because society in general gets turned off, and then the effort becomes self-defeating," said Jan Adams, who coordinates programs that teach English as a second language at Highland High School in Salt Lake City. "People see this as a racial and ethnic issue."

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