As the battle over Proposition 227 drew its first shots of partisan politics from the White House and the governor’s office Monday, it illustrated how the campaign to preserve bilingual education in California schools is not being fought on the merits of the program.
Don’t look for television, radio advertisements or presidential speeches extolling the virtues of teaching immigrant children math and science in their native language while they’re learning English.
Instead, the campaign against Prop. 227 and the Clinton administration are criticizing the measure for taking away local control.
The initiative on the June 2 ballot would abolish most bilingual education for school children and replace it with a one-year English immersion program.
U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley, outlining the administration position Monday, called the initiative a “one-size-fits-all approach”
that “simply ignores the individual needs of each child and certainly is an educational straitjacket for teachers and parents.”
The president, who will arrive in the Bay Area on Friday, might use part of his weekend trip to California to campaign against the initiative, said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
Gov. Pete Wilson said the president should stay out of the debate. Wilson said he had not decided whether he favors the proposition, but “I’m strongly leaning that way.” He accused Clinton of using the issue to play politics.
“I frankly think he has no business, I think the U.S. Department of Education has no business, substituting his judgment for that of the people of California,” Wilson said.
McCurry said the California vote could affect bilingual programs nationwide.
“There’s some reason to believe that federal bilingual education programs are at some risk because of measures pending in Congress that would cut funding for those programs,” McCurry said.
At the same time, the administration is not jumping to the defense of bilingual education. Riley said he “join(s) all Californians who are unhappy with the status quo.”
The current California system is a combination of bilingual classes and methods similar to the immersion programs proposed in Prop. 227.
Instead of mandatory immersion, the administration is calling for setting a nationwide non-binding goal of limiting most children’s participation in bilingual programs to three years.
With five weeks to go before the election, with the latest statewide polls showing up to 75 percent of likely voters support the measure, the president and the statewide campaign against the initiative must change a lot of minds to defeat it.
“Right now it looks like the support is pretty overwhelming,”
says UC-Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. “You never say never,
but you do say highly, highly unlikely.”
Ron Unz, the author of the initiative, is so confident of victory that he’s talking not about whether Prop. 227 will win, but by how much.
“I don’t think there’s much doubt about our winning on Election Day,” Unz says. “I don’t think even our opponents think that,
given our poll numbers, we’ll lose.
“The most important thing is not whether we win but how we win and that the initiative be perceived as a unifying, rather than a divisive,
Unz has many political factors working in his favor:
.California voters have expressed clear preference for immigrants learning English. In 1986, 73 percent of voters backed Proposition 63, which made English the official state language. .The California Teachers Association,
perhaps the best-financed group opposing the initiative, will divert most of its political dollars to fighting Proposition 226. That measure would require labor unions to get written permission from their members before using union dues for political contributions .Al Checchi and Jane Harman,
the two wealthy Democratic gubernatorial ecide which bilingual education programs work best. Prop. 227 would largely eliminate that local decision-making.
In Baldassare’s poll — even though three of four likely voters backed the initiative — 55 percent said want local school districts to decide whether to keep their bilingual education programs.
Richie Ross, the Sacramento consultant running the media campaign against the popular initiative, said it will focus on local control and spending called for in the initiative.
The campaign will also emphasize initiative opposition from key political leaders, including Clinton and state Republican Party Chairman Michael Schroeder,
and groups such as the PTA and League of Women Voters.
The state legislative analyst’s review of the initiative concluded that its net cost cannot be predicted.
But, Ross said, opponents of the initiative will focus on one section for which the spending amount is clear. That section requires spending $50 million a year for 10 years on English classes for adults who, in turn,
promise to tutor children not proficient in English.
Baldassare is dubious focusing on that one item will help opponents.
“Cost factor opens up a can of worms in terms of not just what is the cost of the initiative, but what is the cost of the existing programs,”
he says. “I don’t know how well that issue will hold up to campaign conditions.”
Associated Press contributed to this story.