SAN JOSE — When Palo Alto software entrepreneur Ron Unz led a campaign to ban bilingual education 18 years ago, California erupted in an acrimonious debate that drew national attention, with proponents expressing fears about the decline of English and opponents charging racism and predicting an educational Armageddon.
But today, in a sign of the Golden State’s dramatically changing demographics and politics, the campaign to roll back the “English-only” Proposition 227 seems low-key and uncontroversial, overshadowed by a bevy of hot-button ballot initiatives and the emotionally charged presidential race.
Through Proposition 58 on the November ballot, bilingual education proponents seek to permit public schools to teach in languages other than English, without securing explicit parental permission, as is now required.
A recent Field-IGS Poll showed that Californians overwhelmingly support the measure. But when they find out what the ballot language omits — that it would reinstate bilingual education — that support turns to opposition.
The proposition’s author, state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, says the measure will help prepare students for jobs in a globalized economy. “We already have a natural reserve of children speaking other languages,” he said. “Why not help promote learning their native language?”
Lara insists he doesn’t advocate returning to the pre-Proposition 227 days, when many immigrant children were taught for years in Spanish, often without their parents’ permission or knowledge, and went on to struggle in English.
“All kids should learn English,” Lara said. “What we’re questioning is the method we use to get there.”
Proposition 58’s opponents, however, argue that English-teaching shouldn’t be delayed, and they emphasize what’s commonly observed: The younger the children, the easier and faster they learn English. And, the opponents say, parents have the right to know if their kids are placed in a class taught in a foreign language.
If Proposition 58 passes, “we are going back to a system that will ghettoize children,” said Kenneth Noonan, a retired Gilroy and San Diego schools superintendent and former bilingual education leader who now sees its failings. “It’s just not right.”
After eliminating bilingual education in his Oceanside school district, Noonan said, reading scores of second-grade English-learners grew 100 percent.