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Unz, opponents face off over future of bilingual education

When Ron Unz brought his anti-bilingual education message to Kresge Auditorium Jan. 30, he didn't exactly find himself preaching to the converted. In fact, judging from the comments of most others on the dais and the catcalls from the audience, there were a lot of non-believers in the crowd.

Unz, a Palo Alto software executive, is the author of "English for the Children," an initiative scheduled to appear on the June 2 California ballot that would essentially eliminate bilingual education programs in schools across the state. The initiative was the focus of a panel discussion called "Education, Bilingualism and the Minority Student," one of three sessions that were part of the California Summit on Race in America. The day-long summit was sponsored by the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

Characterizing bilingual education as a "dismal failure" and "totally nuts," Unz argued that too many children are languishing in classes where most of the instruction is given in their native language. Many, he said, never become literate in English. Unz noted that only about 5 percent of students designated as limited English proficient, or LEP, are transferred to mainstream English classes each year. Unz said his ideal was a true melting pot, where characteristics of many cultures contribute to the commonweal, and that to achieve that all children must be taught in English all the time. The notion of a multilingual society, he said, "is not practical at all."

While all of the panelists acknowledged that bilingual education is flawed, most disputed Unz's assessments and challenged his remedies. Several agreed that the "redesignation" or "reclassification" rate ­ the percentage of LEP children who are transferred into English-only classes ­ is indeed low, but they interpreted the figure differently.

"That doesn't mean that 95 percent have failed," said Kelly Hayes-Raitt, director of the "No on Unz" campaign. "What it means is that 95 percent didn't learn enough English in one year to be reclassified."

Hayes-Raitt and others criticized Unz's solution, an approach called sheltered English immersion classes. In those classes, students are taught only in English, but the curriculum and presentation are designed for children who are still learning the language. Under Unz's proposal, children could not stay in a sheltered immersion class for more than a year.

Hayes-Raitt recalled that two years ago an Orange County school district tried the sheltered English immersion approach after getting a state waiver from bilingual education. "Their reclassification rate is lower than it was before they opted out of bilingual education," she noted, adding that the district's redesignation rate is now lower than the state average.

Patricia Gandara, an education professor at the University of California-Davis, concurred that redesignation rates in sheltered immersion programs are low. She added that such programs were never intended as a substitute for bilingual classes. Rather, it was to serve as a bridge between bilingual classes and English-only classes. "It never was designed to be used on children coming into the public schools with no English whatsoever," Gandara said.

Gandara noted also that educational research makes it very clear that the first priority should be to get students to read by the early grades. "The research is very clear. While the speed with which children learn English does not predict how well they will do academically, the rate at which they acquire reading skills is highly predictive of future performance. If children are not reading at grade level in some language, any language, by the third grade, they are at high risk for school failure later. The child who is reading in his or her native language at grade level by the third grade is not at risk for school failure. In fact, many of the children who come to us reading at grade level in some other language are among those who excel the most in our schools," Gandara said.

Professor Martin Carnoy, an economist in the School of Education, echoed that sentiment. He referred to the process of learning to read as "breaking the code. It's so abundantly clear to anybody who knows anything about education that it's a lot easier to teach children how to break the code in a language they already know, rather than try to teach them to break the code and to learn a foreign language at the same time."

Henry Der, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the California Department of Education, whose wife is a veteran bilingual education teacher, noted that only 30 percent of the state's LEP students are getting bilingual services in the schools.

"Are they failing because they are in a bilingual education class or are they failing because they are not in a bilingual education class and not receiving the kind of services that they're entitled to under federal and state law?" Der said.

Der said that one of his concerns with the "English for the Children" initiative is that it addresses only students 10 and younger. "A goodly number of immigrant students come at many different age levels. There need to be different strategies as to how we work with those immigrant students," he said.

Unz's sole ally on the panel was Fernando Vega, Peninsula chairman for the "English for the Children" campaign. Vega, a former member of the Redwood City school board, helped establish bilingual education programs in that district. Personal experiences, however, have soured him on the concept, he said. He recalled that his grandson had been placed in bilingual education classes in that district even though the youngster's only language was English.

"Many students with Spanish surnames, even those who speak only English and speak with proficiency, are placed in bilingual programs," Vega said. "We Latinos feel that bilingual education has kept our children from achieving a good education."

In contrast to the measured air of the formal part of the program, moderated by education Professor Michael Kirst, the question-and-answer portion was highly charged. Unz demanded that Hayes-Raitt disclose her salary as a professional campaign organizer. Opponents of the initiative accused Unz of knowing little about pedagogy.

"If you're going to do an education initiative, you need to know something about education," Gandara said.

Carnoy challenged Unz to put his energies into developing early childhood centers in poor and low-income neighborhoods. He described these facilities as places where students would learn to speak English in a non-academic low-pressure setting. These children also would develop reasoning and prereading skills that would help them compete with middle-class children once they entered school.

"If you were really honest about this problem, Mr. Unz," Carnoy said, "here's what you would do: You would require that the state of California provide in every low-income neighborhood, irrespective of ethnicity or race, high quality child-development centers available to everybody according to what they can pay, just like in France. But you know that you'd never get that passed, because that's going to cost real money and that costs real commitment to the poor people in this state and the low-income people in this state. And you know that the people who support you would never spend that money."


By Elaine Ray

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