English Spoken Here

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'Bilingual education can work if it's implemented correctly.'

Joan Baca,
George Washington Elementary School

Tuchman was born in Pecos, Texas, where her father worked as a timekeeper for the railroad. The Matta family was poor. Indeed, for the first four months of her life, young Gloria lived with her parents in a boxcar provided by the railroad company. In search of opportunity, the Mattas packed their belongings and headed west, first to California and 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 they couldn't swim at the local pool because they were Mexican. 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 once and for all. They settled in Mesa, Arizona, where the family opened Matta's Restaurant, which is still going strong.

"I lived through discrimination," Tuchman once told a reporter for the Orange County Register. "I know what real racism is. It's ugly, and it has made me a stronger person."

Tuchman did well in school, and she eventually graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in elementary education. After working for several years in Phoenix, she and her husband, Terry Tuchman, also an educator, moved to Santa Ana. She began teaching at Taft Elementary in 1967 and has been there ever since. 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 ended up serving two terms as school board president. Her primary focus, naturally, 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, California's top education post. She promised to end the state's bilingual education policies, but she lost the race to Delaine Eastin, a Democrat and a member of the California Assembly. Among 12 candidates, Tuchman managed to place fifth, garnering 8 percent of the votes.

She didn't drop the issue, however. She put her energy into a bill, sponsored by state Senator 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."

Her parents, she reminds people, were active in the Hispanic civil rights movement. Her father, Manuel Matta, was a member of the Arizona Civil Rights Commission. Her mother, Mary Lydia Garza, served as a top national official of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which is the oldest and largest Hispanic organization in the United States. Her late stepfather, George Garza, was LULAC's national president. (Ironically, Tuchman was one of five Hispanic women honored by LULAC's Santa Ana chapter in 1987, in part because of her appointment by then-U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett to the National Advisory and Coordinating Council for Bilingual Education. But LULAC has always supported bilingual education, and the organization opposes Tuchman's efforts to dismantle bilingual programs. "I was surprised when I won," admits Tuchman. "Now, I'm a thorn in their side." Perhaps for that reason, she seems to take special pleasure in telling people about the honor.)

'I lived through discrimination. I know what real racism is. It's ugly, and it has made me a stronger person.'

Gloria Matta Tuchman

To Tuchman's way of thinking, her battle against bilingual education is also a matter of civil rights, and she has little patience with mainstream Hispanic organizations—such as LULAC or the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund—that have come out against the Unz initiative. Bilingual education, she believes, merely ghettoizes children who desperately need to join the mainstream culture.

The English for the Children initiative, Tuchman insists, will give Latino parents—like the ones who boycotted Ninth Street Elementary School—the right to demand that their children be taught in English. "This initiative," she says, "will empower them to make a choice."

But that's exactly what it won't do, critics of the measure say. They argue that by mandating a one-size-fits-all approach to the teaching of English, the initiative will actually put strict limits on parents of LEP students. Waivers, they say, would be difficult for parents to get, despite Unz's claims to the contrary.

"There are weak bilingual programs, to be sure," says James Crawford, author of Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice. "But there are many successful programs, too. And now they're in jeopardy of being wiped out."

One such program is at George Washington Elementary School, in Burbank, about an hour north of Santa Ana. Located in a blue-collar neighborhood just off the Golden State Freeway, the school serves 720 students, nearly half of them Latino. About 150 of the children are enrolled in a transitional bilingual program that starts in kindergarten and goes through 3rd grade. By 4th grade, the students are doing all their work in English.

"Bilingual education can work," argues principal Joan Baca, "if it's implemented correctly with the right components. First, it's the staffing. You have to have teachers who can teach in the primary language. At the same time, you need to have a component in English, where children are learning to speak the language but are not losing one to two years of cognitive learning skills. Most children cannot attain those two elements at the same time."

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