Gov. Pete Wilson dealt a two-fisted blow to bilingual education supporters Monday, vetoing a bill designed to revamp the way California educates non-English speakers and endorsing a popular ballot measure requiring public school instruction be in English.
Wilson joined the backers of Proposition 227 in characterizing bilingual education as a “serious failure.”
“The education establishment has had its chance to make this experiment work,” Wilson said. “It has clearly failed.”
But instead of rejoicing over the governor’s support, the author of Proposition 227 immediately repudiated the endorsement. Wilson outraged many among Latino voters, whom Republican businessman Ron Unz is trying to court, when he backed a 1994 ballot measure aimed at eliminating public services for illegal immigrants.
“It’s very unfortunate that the governor has chosen to endorse our initiative,” Unz said, reading a prepared statement. “It would be gravely opportunistic and deceitful if the opposition were to use Wilson’s endorsement in an attempt to discredit those of us involved in the campaign who have worked hard to improve the education of these immigrant children.”
Wilson announced his endorsement along with his veto of Senate Bill 6.
The bill would have allowed schools to use almost any method they chose to educate students with limited English skills, in exchange for a promise to regularly evaluate student achievement.
The bill, which had been wending its way though the Capitol for more than two years, was intended as a compromise between critics of bilingual education and its defenders.
But Wilson said the bill “fails to provide much hope of improvement.”
“To her credit, the author of SB 6 has been trying for four years to get reform of bilingual programs to my desk,” Wilson wrote. But,
“legislative consensus has come not only late, but with serious flaws.”
Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, the bill’s author, said she was disappointed that last-minute negotiations with the governor’s office could not yield a compromise.
“We worked hard on this measure, and it has bipartisan support,”
Alpert said. “I had hoped the governor would see this as a sensible framework for English learners.”
The bill’s co-author, Republican Brooks Firestone of Santa Barbara, said language was added to the bill over his objections that appeared to encourage schools to teach and test students in their native language.
“That was the proverbial poison pill,” Firestone said.
The veto surprised almost no one. Wilson has been staking out his political ground on the issue for months.
His nominees to the state Board of Education scrapped California’s bilingual education policies in March, arguing that the law requiring schools to educate children in their home language had long ago expired.
About a month later, Wilson himself hinted strongly he would endorse Proposition 227.
The ballot measure — known as the “Unz Initiative” — would dismantle most bilingual education programs. Non-English-speaking students would be placed in a “sheltered English immersion” class for a year before moving into a regular English-language classroom.
The initiative has strong public support. But Wilson is its highest-profile backer to date. Among the opponents of the measure is President Clinton.
Nonetheless, Unz — who ran for governor against Wilson in 1994 — moved quickly to distance himself from the governor’s support.
Unz would not elaborate on his reasons beyond his prepared statement.
But the Palo Alto businessman has worked feverishly to shore up support for his initiative in the Latino community. In doing so, he has tried to disassociate himself from the political far right and supporters of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigrant initiative. Wilson was one of that proposition’s most visible backers.
The “No on 227″ campaign also dismissed Wilson’s endorsement,
implying that the lame-duck governor’s support was politically irrelevant.
“Our next governor is going to be opposed to 227,” said campaign spokeswoman Holly Thier. “All of the candidates for governor have opposed 227. What we think is far more important is that (GOP candidate) Dan Lungren has opposed 227. That has far more political power.”