Big Majorities in Poll Support Bilingual Limit

Shorter transitions advocated for pupils learning English

Sacramento—A proposed ballot initiative to dramatically shrink California’s bilingual education program enjoys wide support among voters of all parties and ethnic groups, a new Field Poll reports.

Among voters who were read a summary of the measure, 69 percent said they would vote yes, 24 percent no, and 7 percent were undecided. The measure, which is expected to officially qualify for the June ballot in the coming weeks, was backed by 62 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of white non-Hispanics, 66 percent of Latinos, 71 percent of African Americans and 55 percent of people of Asian descent and other backgrounds.

Mark DiCamillo, associate director of the poll, said the antipathy for bilingual education is so strong among voters that it overrides particular concerns with the details contained in the measure, which is sponsored by electronics millionaire Ron Unz. “The concept of teaching kids in English is a very broad concept that is supported in our society,” DiCamillo said. “It touches a very strong nerve in public opinion.” But DiCamillo said the poll’s findings may expose a vulnerability. “The quarrel may be with the particulars,” DiCamillo said, noting that there is little consensus among voters about how to replace the existing bilingual program. For example, the survey shows that voters are at odds with parts of the so-called English for the Children measure, especially a requirement that a strictly limited bilingual program be imposed statewide. Fifty-five percent of those polled said they preferred that rules be determined by local school districts, not the state.


DiCamillo also noted wide disparities when voters were asked how long children should receive bilingual instruction. California’s 20-year-old bilingual education law requires that pupils with limited or no English ability be taught in their native language until they are proficient in English, as long as seven years in some cases. The Unz initiative would impose a “sheltered English immersion” not to last longer than one year. The poll reported that a quarter of voters thought one year was the appropriate time to learn English, while nearly equal numbers said the instruction should take two or three years. Both foes and supporters of the proposed initiative claimed the poll results supported their own views.
“I’m pleased by the numbers,” said Sherri Annis, spokeswoman for the initiative campaign. “Most of the population wants children to be taught English as soon as possible.”


But opponents said that as voters become more familiar with the details of the initiative, support declines. They also cited an earlier poll by the Los Angeles Times, which showed 80 percent support in October. “We’re making progress,” said Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a consultant hired by bilingual education supporters, including the California Teachers Association and the Association of School Administrators. She added that the seemingly contradictory results over local control vs. support of a statewide mandate suggests that voters may not yet know that teachers and school board members would be held legally liable for failing to teach in the manner prescribed under the initiative, which would become part of the state Education Code. “Once voters realize that the initiative is out of step with their values, then they’ll defeat this initiative in June.” The telephone survey was conducted November 12 to 23 among 696 registered voters. The Field Institute said that among such a group, the sampling error would be plus or minus 3.6 percentage points and that results from subgroups could have larger sampling errors.


— After being read a summary of the proposed initiative requiring English as required language of instruction in the public schools, registered voters stated their opinions:

Voter Would vote YES Would vote NO Undecided
Statewide 69% 24 7
Democrats 62% 28 10
Republicans 76% 20 4
Other political affiliations 71% 24 5
White (non-Hispanic) 71% 22 7
Latino 66% 30 4
Black/African American(x) 71% 22 7
Asian/other(x) 55% 35 10
(x) – smaller sample sizes


— Should decisions about how school bilingual education programs are implemented be made on a statewide basis or locally by each school board?
(asked of registered voters).

Voter Locally Statewide Undecided
Statewide 55% 40 5
Democrats 51% 42 7
Republicans 58% 37 5
Other political affiliations 55% 40 5
White (non-Hispanic) 53% 42 5
Latino 61% 36 3
Black/African American(x) 48% 43 9
Asian/other(x) 65% 24 11

(x) – smaller sample sizes

The poll was conducted November 12-23 by the Field Institute. Results are from a telephone survey of 696 randomly selected registered voters in California, including 334 Democrats, 271 Republicans, 91 with other political affiliations; 502 whites (non-Hispanic), 101 Latinos, 44 Black/African Americans and 49 Asians/other. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

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