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California and the West

White House Panel to Oppose Prop. 227

Ballot: Resolution condemns the bid to gut bilingual education, saying 'no one approach is the answer.' Measure's author calls the status quo an 'utter failure.'

April 03, 1998|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wading into the state's debate over bilingual instruction, a White House commission on Latino education plans to declare its opposition today to Proposition 227 at a meeting in Claremont designed to underscore the national stakes of the June 2 vote.

If passed, the anti-bilingual-education initiative "would force California schools to enroll all children with native languages other than English in a mandated, and untested, one-year English immersion program," reads a resolution expected to be approved by the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

"Experience and research indicate that no one approach is the answer for all children," the statement adds.

The resolution, a copy of which was released Thursday to The Times, says the commission "strongly opposes" the initiative.

Authored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron K. Unz, Proposition 227 seeks to end native-language teaching in public schools for children with limited English skills, allowing few exceptions. The measure holds a commanding lead in statewide polls.

In place of bilingual education, the initiative prescribes one year of intensive English lessons before moving students into mainstream classes. The measure would mean a radical shift for a state with 1.4 million students with limited English abilities, far more than any other state.

Critics say Unz's approach remains unproven and would lead to classroom chaos. They say that many students not fluent in English would drown under a "sink or swim" rule and that English-speaking students in mainstream classes would suffer too.

Although bilingual education has drawn all the attention, seven out of 10 California schoolchildren with limited English skills are taught in classrooms where English is the primary language used. The state has a massive shortage of bilingual teachers.

The 25-member commission, which includes Supts. Ruben Zacarias of the Los Angeles Unified School District and Waldemar Rojas of the San Francisco Unified School District, was formed by President Clinton in 1994 to address high dropout rates and other problems Latinos encounter in public schools.

To date, the Clinton administration has taken no position on Proposition 227. But the commission's action could lend some White House prestige to the campaign against the measure. Leaders of the commission say pointedly that the White House and the federal Department of Education were both told of their plans to meet in California and raised no objections.

While the commission intends to take testimony from experts, its pro-bilingual education position is a foregone conclusion. Member Guillermo Linares, a New York City councilman, said the panel had to let Californians know that the nation is watching.

"Everything that gets introduced here in California has an eventual impact on the rest of the country, and especially in New York," he said, "because we share so much with a city like Los Angeles. We feel the impact could be devastating."

Unz, who was invited to attend the hearing at Pitzer College but said he would be unable to, argued that bilingual education has hurt, not helped, Latino schoolchildren.

"It might have been better for the members of this panel to say, 'We should try something different since the status quo has been such an utter failure,' " he said.

Unz has said his one-year English immersion proposal is based on common sense rather than research, most of which he dismisses as biased. But Ana M. "Cha" Guzman, a community college administrator from Texas who heads the commission, said that many studies validate the effectiveness of well-funded, well-designed bilingual education and that schools should be able to use native-language teaching when needed.

In fact, although California education groups are virtually unanimous in opposition to Proposition 227, state policy on bilingual education is in flux. Last month, the State Board of Education promised local school districts more freedom to pick their own programs for educating students with limited English abilities. Next week, the board is due to consider new policies to implement that strategy.

Both sides in the Proposition 227 debate are also following a bill, SB6, now advancing in the Legislature that would rewrite state law to allow local control over bilingual education decisions.

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