'86 measure interpreted as banning bilingual ed

SACRAMENTO — Strange as it may seem, given the controversy over an initiative on the June ballot, California may have already voted to end bilingual education.

It happened in 1986, when voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative declaring that English is the official language of the state of California.

Bilingual education was not specifically mentioned in the language of Proposition 63 or in the ballot pamphlet arguments for the measure, which received 73 percent of the vote.

But the argument in support of the initiative said, among other things,
that government must protect English “by ensuring that immigrants are taught English as quickly as possible (except as required by federal law).”

Teaching young immigrants English as quickly as possible is the goal of an initiative placed on the June ballot this year by businessman Ron Unz, a Republican candidate for governor four years ago.

With some exceptions, the Unz initiative would end the bilingual education programs where students with limited English are taught primarily in their native language for up to seven years.

Bilingual education would be replaced with a “sheltered immersion”
program taught mainly in English. Students would transfer into mainstream English-speaking classes after about a year.

When Proposition 63 was on the ballot a dozen years ago, the measure did not spell out what declaring English the official language of California would actually do — a fatal flaw, as it turned out.

Opponents warned of dire consequences: telephone operators unable to communicate with emergency callers, people in court without interpreters and immigrant parents baffled by instructions for school enrollment.

The backers denied that Proposition 63 would have these effects. But the ballot pamphlet argument, which is sometimes used by the courts to determine what an initiative means, was mainly a general statement about why all Californians should know English.

“Our American heritage is now threatened by language conflicts and ethnic separatism,” said the argument. “Today, there is a serious erosion of English as our common bond.”

The ballot argument’s main points were that government must prevent laws that diminish English, issue voting materials in English only (when allowed by federal law), ensure that immigrants learn English quickly and require the government to function in English (with exceptions for health, safety and justice).

But the language of the initiative itself said little or nothing about what the measure would actually do. The initiative simply said: “The Legislature shall enforce this section by appropriate legislation.”

For a decade, a series of Republican legislators routinely introduced bills to implement Proposition 63, only to have them rejected by the Democratic-controlled Legislature. The impact on bilingual education was always a sticking point.

“That was one of the biggest arguments against it,” recalls John Stoos, regional director of English First, the sponsor of Proposition 63.

Implementing the initiative never became much of a political issue. In legislative campaigns, Republicans seldom if ever tried to hammer Democrats for voting against legislation to carry out the will of the people.

The backers of Proposition 63 never went to court to enforce the vaguely worded initiative, even though the language of the measure gives any California resident legal standing to sue for its enforcement.

And today, California issues voting material in seven languages and gives driver’s license tests in 33 languages. But the voters will get another chance to pass judgment on the state’s flourishing bilingual education programs.

The Unz initiative has a commanding lead in the polls, some very specific language — and no need for enforcement by the Legislature.

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