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Hispanic, Bilingual Groups Unite Against Calif. Measure

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The California ballot initiative that could virtually dismantle bilingual education in the state's public schools came under the spotlight last week at the annual meeting of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

In a news conference held here late last week, a coalition of more than 20 of some of the nation's largest Hispanic groups denounced the initiative, now known as Proposition 227, saying it "represents a giant step backwards in the Hispanic community's continuing quest for educational equity and excellence."

The nationally watched "English for the Children" initiative would require that California children with limited English skills be taught, in most cases, for no more than a year in special English classes before moving into the mainstream. It would establish a detailed process that parents would have to go through to choose a bilingual education program instead.

James J. Lyons

About 1.4 million, or a quarter of California's 5.6 million schoolchildren, are considered limited-English-proficient, more than in any other state.

Proposition 227 was launched last year by Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire 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 who is running to become the elected state schools chief.

Program notes for the NABE conference here, which drew roughly 8,000 educators, researchers, and parents to the Dallas Convention Center Feb. 24-28, promised attendees the opportunity to discuss the initiative and "become knowledgeable and articulate in our responses to the issue."

Educators packed an emotional symposium held on the initiative. The measure surfaced in many keynote speeches and on the lapels of educators in the form of buttons reading "I pledge to stop Unz."

Bigger Than California

A special edition of the NABE newsletter devoted to the initiative was tucked into conference programs. It analyzed the measure and urged readers to contribute money to the opposition campaign, write letters to California newspapers, and ask friends and relatives in California to vote against it.

The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda's resolution against Proposition 227 is significant because Mr. Unz and other initiative supporters have argued that their proposal will help Hispanic students, said NABE Executive Director James J. Lyons.

"But from here on, Unz can no longer claim what he's doing is for the benefit of Latinos when you have these organizations saying he is wrong," Mr. Lyons said.

Initiative proponents say that students are not learning English well or fast enough in bilingual programs. Statewide polls have shown widespread support for the initiative, even among Hispanics.

But it faces opposition from many of the state's education organizations, whose leaders portray it as a misguided, one-size-fits-all approach to teaching children. Opponents note that only a third of California's lep students are in bilingual programs. ("Bilingual Ed. Initiative All Set To Go Before Voters in June," Jan. 14, 1998.)

California voters will decide the fate of the initiative on the June 2 ballot.

The keynote speaker here, Protase E. Woodford, argued that Proposition 227 is not simply a California issue. "Everyone seems to agree that what happens in California invariably spreads--like an educational Ebola virus--to the rest of the nation," said Mr. Woodford, a former director of test development for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.

Concern Over 'Fallout'

Nancy Rowch, who oversees LEP programs for the Nebraska Department of Education, said the initiative is just coming onto the radar screen in her state. While most programs for LEP students in Nebraska use English as the language of instruction, Ms. Rowch said, some districts with burgeoning Spanish-speaking populations are contemplating a more bilingual approach, where teachers use more of the student's native language.

"But I think some of our schools are afraid to do anything until they see the fallout in California," she said. The issue could become controversial, Ms. Rowch added, "and I don't think folks are ready to fight that fight yet."

Jorge GarcĀ”a, who oversees programs for the roughly 1,700 LEP students in the 14,000-student Greeley, Colo., schools, recalled another hotly debated California ballot initiative, Proposition 187, that sought to deny children who are illegal immigrants a public K-12 education. The measure has been tied up in the courts since voters overwhelmingly approved it in 1994, but Mr. Garcia said that in the aftermath, some Colorado districts received families who had left California.

"We may not have the same thing pass here, but we're close enough geographically for this to have an effect," he said.

Alma Backer, the principal of the 1,100-student Coronita Elementary School in Corona, Calif., said her school is very aware of Proposition 227, but some parents and teachers do not fully understand it. She fears that if it passes, parents of LEP students will feel the schools are rejecting them once again, as in 1994.

"We will have a lot of mending to do," she said.

Joanne H. Urrutia, a bilingual supervisor for the Miami-Dade County schools in Florida, said the California initiative is a source of concern for her and her colleagues. "But I don't think people feel the same thing will happen here," she said. "We are not California."

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