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English Spoken Here

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Tuchman believes California voters will see the wisdom of the English for the Children initiative.

But the campaign is just getting started. Opponents have pointed out that Proposition 187--the 1994 initiative that aimed to stop a free education and most other public benefits for illegal immigrants--initially was supported by a majority of Latino voters, but by Election Day, 77 percent opposed it. The measure passed, but it is now tied up in court. (Unz was a vocal opponent of 187, although he supported Proposition 209, the initiative approved in 1996 that bars race or gender from being a factor in state hiring or school admission.)

Tuchman believes California voters will see the wisdom of the English for the Children initiative.

"It's gonna go," she says. "There's no doubt in my mind. This isn't even a Republican and Democrat issue. It's people in general, and they're fed up with the [bilingual education] program. I mean, something has to give after all these years."

Taft Elementary School is in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of one- and two-story houses. From the playground, you can hear the constant hum of cars on the busy San Diego Freeway, a few blocks away. Tuchman has spent virtually her entire teaching career at the K-5 school, which opened in 1972. "I'm one of the pillars," she says.

About 65 percent of Taft's students are Latino, 17 percent are white, 12 percent are of Asian origin or descent, 4 percent are African-American, and 2 percent are Filipino or Pacific Islander. "There are 16 different languages spoken here," Principal William Hart says. Many students are the sons and daughters of recent immigrants, and they enter kindergarten not speaking a word of English.

From day one, the students are immersed in English. But it is not, Hart insists, a "sink or swim" approach. Every teacher has either a Spanish- or Vietnamese-speaking assistant who can communicate with the children in their native language, and the teachers often use drawings and sign language to convey meanings of words. That's why it's called "sheltered."

"There was a time when it was incredibly politically incorrect to think this way and to teach this way in this district," Hart says. "And there were some major battles fought in this office. But I think that people realize you can't argue with success." Last year, Hart says, the school had the highest test scores in the Santa Ana Unified School District. "The achievement scores were just beyond belief. And those scores included our LEP students." Now, there's a waiting list for parents who want to enroll their students in the immersion classes.

It's a Tuesday afternoon, and Tuchman is sitting in a comfortable armchair while her students--13 girls and three boys dressed in blue-and-white uniforms--sit cross-legged on the floor. With the exception of two Vietnamese students, all the children are Latino.

Tuchman, who has a relaxed, easygoing style with her students, takes out a book called Witch, Witch, Come to My Party and begins reading--in English. She pauses sometimes to emphasize certain sounds. "'Witch' starts with what letter?" she asks. "W," several children answer in unison.

"The primary goal of bilingual education is to teach English. And that's exactly what the program is lacking. In this state, it's a Spanish-maintenance program."

Gloria Matta Tuchman

Most of the students are comfortable talking in English. But one girl seems confused. Later, Tuchman explains that the girl just moved here from Mexico and that her English skills lag behind those of her classmates. Tuchman, who speaks Spanish, says she sometimes uses the girl's native language when talking with her.

Some students, it seems, prefer to speak Spanish with each other. "And that's fine," Tuchman says. "We let them do that. But the main language of communication is English. I don't have to use Spanish very often."

After she finishes reading the book, Tuchman switches to a different topic: money. She takes out a ruler and points to a poster showing the fronts and backs of U.S. coins: quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies.

"How many quarters in a dollar?" she asks.

"Four," the students answer.

"Whose picture is on a dime?"

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt."

"Which president was he?"

After a pause, one boy offers the correct answer: "The 32nd president."

The exercise continues for about 15 minutes, then Tuchman asks her students to return to their desks and work on a writing assignment. She gives them each a worksheet with some letters and asks them to cut out the letters and paste them down on another sheet to spell short words such as man, pals, mat, taps, and hat, among others. Most of the students perform the task handily; others cannot spell the words without help from their teacher.

At 2:25 p.m., the students gather their coats and line up at the back of the classroom. Tuchman leads them out of the building, where a group of parents is waiting.

Back in her empty classroom, Tuchman takes a seat at a small table and launches into a passion-filled attack on bilingual education. "These parents want their children to learn English," she says, "because they know that English is what the kids need to become successful." The problem with most bilingual education programs, she is convinced, is that the students don't learn English. "The primary goal of bilingual education is to teach English. And that's exactly what the program is lacking. It does not do that. In this state, it's a Spanish-maintenance program."

It's clear that Tuchman believes every word she says. But she's been a zealous foe of bilingual education for so long now that her remarks sound a bit rehearsed. She's a good teacher--her principal calls her "outstanding"--but she's very much a politician. Tuchman speaks in polished sound bites and even distributes her own press kit, complete with a 5-by-7, black-and-white photograph of herself and a three-page autobiography.

Tuchman, the oldest of six children, traces her strong views to her parents, Mexican-Americans who spoke Spanish but who insisted that their children learn English at an early age. "My father," she recalls, "used to say, 'The Anglos did us a favor by making us learn English. That's why we're successful. And we didn't forget our Spanish.'"

Gloria Matta was born in Pecos, Texas, where her father worked as a timekeeper for the railroad. In search of opportunity, the Mattas headed west, first to California, then to Arizona. "One of my father's many jobs in trying to keep tortillas on the table," she says, "was working in the cotton fields for a dollar a day." Eventually, the growing family returned to Pecos. It was there that Tuchman experienced, as she puts it, "the indignities of racial discrimination."

One summer, she and her siblings were told that they couldn't swim at the local pool because they were Mexican-Americans. Tuchman's mother hounded the pool operators until they relented, but the incident left its mark. And when Tuchman was about to enter the town's segregated junior high school, her parents decided it was time to get out of Pecos. They settled in Mesa, Ariz., and opened Matta's Restaurant, which is still going strong.

Tuchman graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in elementary education. In 1967, after working several years in Phoenix, she and her husband, Terry Tuchman, also an educator, moved to Santa Ana. The Tuchmans have two grown children.

After her confrontation with the principal in 1985, Tuchman, a lifelong Republican, decided to enter the political arena. First, she ran for school board in the nearby Tustin Unified School District. She won and served two terms as the board's president. Her primary focus was bilingual education, and she was successful in leading the district away from primary-language instruction before voters turned her out in 1994.

That same year, she took her crusade statewide when she ran for state superintendent of public instruction. She promised to end the state's bilingual education policies. Tuchman lost the race to Delaine Eastin, a Democrat and a member of the California Assembly. Among 12 candidates, Tuchman placed fifth, garnering 8 percent of the votes.

She didn't drop the bilingual issue, however. She put her energy into a bill, sponsored by state Sen. Deirdre Alpert, a Democrat, and state Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, a Republican, that, in its initial form, would have replaced bilingual education with English-only instruction. But as the bill made its way through the legislature, compromises were made that Tuchman believed weakened it. She eventually withdrew her support and lobbied against the bill, which died in committee. "I am not going to have a bad bill go on the books again," she says. "I can't do that. I won't do that."

Critics have portrayed Tuchman as a self-hating Mexican-American who dyes her hair blond and sometimes wears blue contact lenses. But she brushes off the attacks. "I don't care what you call me," she says. "I know that I'm right."

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