It was little more than a week before the election, and Ron Unz, the usually upbeat and unflappable architect of Proposition 227, was nervous.
An internal tracking poll was pegging support for his anti-bilingual education initiative at just 54 percent even though months of statewide public opinion polls had pointed to a big victory. A large chunk of the electorate was still undecided.
As Tuesday’s almost 61 percent vote proved, Unz needn’t have worried.
Political observers now say the victory was inevitable given bilingual education’s persistent poor reputation and Californians’ anxieties about immigration,
education and the need for a common language.
“This was an issue ripe for the picking,” said Jim Shultz,
director of the Democracy Center in San Francisco and a Proposition 227 foe.
The “English for the Children” initiative posed a simple educational question: Should schools be allowed to teach students in their home language
— most frequently Spanish — until they become proficient in English?
But the issue immediately became bound up in larger issues of language and concerns that immigrants in general are not learning English and assimilating quickly enough.
“Things having to do with language evoke an emotional response that stems from fears and concerns that are hard to pin down,” said Donna Christian, director of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington,
D.C. “It evokes all our fears about immigrants not learning English.
. . . For some it’s xenophobia, for others racism. It all just gets loaded onto language and language differences.”
Unz tried to avoid the divisive racial politics that marked earlier debates over propositions 187 and 209, which sought to cut aid to illegal immigrants and ended race and gender preferences in public contracts and education.
He aggressively courted the Latino vote and refused to let critics of immigration be associated with his campaign.
To some extent he was successful, said Gregory Rodriguez, a media commentator and Pepperdine University research fellow.
“I think this debate was quite different (from 187),” Rodriguez said. “Republicans were reluctant to rush headlong into racist politics,
and Latino legislators were less likely to label this (initiative) racism.”
In the end, though, the initiative appealed to California’s largely white and conservative electorate, Shultz contended. The measure won with large margins among every ethnic group but Hispanics, who voted nearly 2-to-1 against it, according to a CNN-Los Angeles Times exit poll.
Concerns about immigrants’ lack of English date back to the late 19th century, said Stanford University sociolinguist Shirley Brice Heath. Americans became increasingly less tolerant of immigrants, such as the Germans, who brought their own languages and institutions with them to their new homeland and did not become literate in the common language.
“People began to worry about the functional difficulties of them not speaking English,” said Heath, author of “Language in the U.S.A.” “There was a strong sense that you had to make people good, and to do that, you had to make them speak English.”
The hostility toward non-English-speakers accelerated during the first and second world wars, when national unity became more important in the face of an outside enemy, she said, and continues today.
Given that history, it’s not surprising that bilingual education, created by federal law three decades ago, has long rested on shaky political ground.
When voters declared English the official language of California with Proposition 63 in 1986, supporters said they also wanted to abolish bilingual education.
Less than a year later, then-Gov. George Deukmejian allowed California’s bilingual education law to expire, although state education officials continued to enforce its intent. Since then, bilingual instruction has come under periodic attacks, including a hard-hitting 1993 report by the Little Hoover Commission.
Name part of the problem
Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont said one of the problems is that “bilingual education” was saddled with an inappropriate name that “didn’t take people to the idea it was about teaching people English.”
Educators may have compounded the confusion by selling bilingual education as a cultural pride issue, Christian said.
“The civil rights movement opened a lot of things that made people nervous,” Christian said. “The notion of pride in your background makes people nervous.”
That anxiety was reinforced by the anecdotal evidence — exploited relentlessly by Unz and other critics and repeated by the media — that some bilingual classes failed to educate students or make them fluent in English.
In his campaign, Unz pointed to the relatively high Latino dropout rate as evidence of bilingual education’s failure — even though only 30 percent of the students who speak little or no English were placed in bilingual classes. But there were also stories about Latino students reaching high school unable to read or write English, or English-speaking children getting placed in bilingual classes simply because of their Spanish surnames.
“From everything I read, the system wasn’t working,” an unidentified middle-aged male voter said as he left a San Jose voting booth Tuesday.
“I want a system that works for the kids, and I’m not convinced the current system is working.”
Supporters of bilingual education could have quelled this criticism by acknowledging those weaknesses and reforming the system, Rodriguez argues.
Instead, school administrators often dismissed criticism of their bilingual programs and ignored the problems, he said. And Latino lawmakers and special interest groups repeatedly blocked reform legislation, only producing a watered down bilingual education bill after it became clear Proposition 227 might win.
“They were so intent on saving these controversial programs, they never took the time to reform it,” Rodriguez said. “If you want to reform a program, then just reform the damn thing.”
Support began early
By the time Unz began collecting signatures for his “English for the Children” campaign last July, public sentiment was already strongly in its favor. In one of the first polls on the initiative, 80 percent of the electorate approved of it.
Although his staff was minuscule, Unz mounted an aggressive and sophisticated public relations campaign, telling the media and voters a story about immigrant parents in Los Angeles who had to boycott a public school just to get their children educated in English.
Shultz, author of the “The Initiative Cookbook,” is sharply critical of the opposition’s response. Opponents — backed by the California Association for Bilingual Education and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund — presented an unfocused, “jargon-laden” message driven by focus groups that never moved voters emotionally, he said.
“You didn’t hear from the people who had benefited from bilingual education,” he said. “You heard from advocates, and groups like MALDEF and PR people or school administrators. It played right into Unz’s characterization of a bilingual education bureaucracy out of control.”
Sacramento political consultant Richie Ross, the architect of the opposition campaign, did not return phone calls. But the campaign’s spokeswoman, Holli Thier, on election night said that Unz began with a big advantage that was hard to overcome.
“I think our message got out,” she said. “But his got out much earlier.”
If there is an irony, Heath said, it’s that the effect of Proposition 227’s victory may be the opposite of its intent.
“The outcomes people predict will not be there at all,” Heath said. “. . . Now there will be a backlash. Now people will say, `I want to keep my language.’ “