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Foes of English-Only Initiative Learn Lesson on Politics

Campaign: Bilingual education advocates admit they were slow in reacting to fledgling effort. Now, they are forming groups and taking the battle to cyberspace.

September 28, 1997|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As early as June, a Web-browsing political junkie might have stumbled onto the beginnings of the campaign to dismantle bilingual education in California at an Internet site dubbed OneNation.org.

There, "news" and "facts" are broadcast for the proposed ballot measure titled "English for the Children."

For months, the site's militant English-centrism went uncontested on the Web, while its sponsors made headlines nationwide by promoting the June 1998 initiative to mandate English-only instruction for most California schoolchildren who have limited English skills.

But now, in cyberspace at least, advocates for bilingual education are fighting back.

A tart rejoinder to OneNation.org can be found a few clicks away--at SmartNation.org.

It posts "news," "facts" and "myths" about bilingual education. Its message, perhaps the first slogan of a nascent anti-initiative campaign, is "Language, Literacy and Cultural Tolerance for All Children."

But even as they answer their critics in cyberspace, the supporters of bilingual education must next do what matters most in politics: build a coalition, raise money and, ultimately, convince voters.

It is, they acknowledge, a task more formidable than creating a home page. They are up against a Silicon Valley multimillionaire, Ron Unz, who is willing to bankroll the initiative, and an Orange County schoolteacher, Gloria Matta Tuchman, who gives the campaign a Latina voice. They also face an electorate that resoundingly approved a measure making English the state's official language just 11 years ago.

The proposed initiative seeks to put a stop to bilingual education, which the state for two decades has enforced as the preferred teaching method for children who are not proficient in English. If the initiative passes, parents who want their children to receive instruction in a language other than English will have to ask for it.

Most of California's 1.4 million limited-English students come from Spanish-speaking homes. So last month, about 80 people from some of California's leading Latino organizations and Latino groups gathered for the first time with bilingual advocates to discuss how to respond.

"There's an enormous amount of concern," said one of the organizers of the meeting, Laurie Olsen, co-director of California Tomorrow, a San Francisco-based organization that advocates multicultural understanding.

"The pro-initiative campaign got off to a really early start. They came out with some punches. But there is a determination to really step out and try to mount a credible campaign to . . . defeat the initiative," Olsen said.

So far, no major statewide committee has come together to oppose Unz and Matta Tuchman. Olsen said she expects a coalition will file organizing papers soon, though she did not name a target date.

Among the groups represented at the Oakland meeting were the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the California Assn. for Bilingual Education and neutral observers such as the state Parent Teacher Assn.

Some of the so-far neutral parties--including the California Teachers Assn., the California Federation of Teachers, the California School Boards Assn. and a statewide group of teachers who specialize in English as a second language--have indicated that they may soon join the opposition.

"It's reasonable to expect that CTA will oppose this initiative," said Bob Cherry, associate executive director of the influential teachers union. "We feel that every student is entitled to equal access to all educational opportunities, and that includes access, if required, through primary language. Teachers ought to have a full range of alternatives."

Unz, who aims to gather at least 650,000 voter signatures by Dec. 1 to qualify the measure for the ballot, said last week that he has not yet heard of a significant opposition movement. He dismissed many of his declared and potential foes as "just letterheads."

The former Republican candidate for governor is seeking an endorsement of his initiative at the GOP convention in Anaheim this weekend. The convention is expected to vote on the matter today.

Republicans have traditionally opposed bilingual education, but party leaders--skeptical of Unz and wary of alienating Latino voters--were seeking to delay a decision on endorsement.

As the scramble for endorsements continues, the supporters of bilingual education have begun issuing critiques of the proposed initiative.

Among their contentions:

* The initiative is a poorly drafted attempt to legislate a complex area of school curriculum by popular vote. Unz replies that the state Legislature has failed to do its job.

* The initiative does not allow enough time in calling for limited-English students to receive special help with English only for one year before entering mainstream classes. Unz says his proposal drew on common sense observation when he proposed a one-year cutoff.

* The initiative unfairly holds teachers and education officials liable for damages if they are found in violation of the English-teaching requirement. Unz concedes that he might exclude teachers from this provision if he were able to rewrite the initiative.

* The initiative limits parental choice by mandating one approach to teaching students who have many different needs. Unz says the reverse is true: that parents now are stuck with a failed system.

Californians will be hearing these and many other arguments about bilingual education if, as most observers expect, the initiative qualifies for the ballot. What worries many bilingual advocates is whether their side will be heard.

But bilingual advocates are making some headway on one score. By Friday, their site had recorded 1,708 "hits" by Web surfers, just 500 shy of the 2,208 logged by OneNation.

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