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Bilingual Ed. Initiative All Set To Go Before Voters in June

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As expected, a nationally watched initiative that could virtually eliminate bilingual education in California public schools will go before state voters in June.

The secretary of state's office on Dec. 23 certified that leaders of the English for the Children initiative had submitted more than the 433,269 valid signatures required to qualify for the June 2 ballot.

The measure was launched by Ron K. Unz, a millionaire businessman who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary, and Gloria Matta Tuchman, an Orange County elementary school teacher and a longtime critic of bilingual education.

In general, the measure would require that students be taught in English, and it sets out the process parents would have to go through to choose a bilingual education program instead. Students with limited English skills would be taught, in most cases, for no more than a year in special English classes before moving into the mainstream.

Taking Sides

Initiative proponents say students are not learning English well or fast enough in bilingual programs. But many of the state's education organizations oppose the initiative. They say the measure is a misguided one-size-fits-all approach to teaching children. ("Plan To Curb Bilingual Ed. Progresses in Calif.," Oct. 15, 1997.)

That is precisely what the sponsor of a bill to revise the state's bilingual education law wants to avoid. State Sen. Deirdre Alpert this month hopes to advance a bill that would allow districts to design their own programs for English learners in exchange for heightened accountability for student performance, said Lisa Giroux, an aide to the Democrat.

The Alpert bill passed the Senate last year, but stalled in a committee in the legislature's lower chamber. Many observers say the lack of legislative action in recent years has bolstered support for the upcoming ballot initiative.

Sen. Alpert "feels if anything is going to get done legislatively, it needs to get done now," Ms. Giroux said.

In another effort to counter the measure, Assemblyman Mike Honda, a Democrat in the legislature's lower chamber, proposed a constitutional amendment that would preserve local control over teaching methodologies.

The moves come against the backdrop of a recent poll by the San Francisco-based Field Institute, an independent, nonpartisan public opinion group. Survey results issued early last month found that 69 percent of a representative sample of 696 California registered voters surveyed said they would vote for the ballot measure. Support for the initiative crossed racial, ethnic, and political lines.

Meanwhile, the school board of the nation's second-largest school system on Dec. 15 voted unanimously to oppose the ballot measure. Nearly half of the 667,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified district have limited English skills. But when members of the local teachers' union voted on whether the 35,000-member United Teachers of Los Angeles should endorse the ballot measure, the result was far from unanimous: With nearly 15,000 members voting, the result was a 52.3 percent to 47.6 percent vote against endorsing the initiative. The UTLA is an affiliate of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

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