SACRAMENTO — California voters may once again be setting national trends
— this time speeding up the teaching of English to young students who don’t speak the language and dampening a national Republican drive to limit the political clout of labor unions.
An initiative that would end most bilingual education programs, Proposition 227, won overwhelming approval yesterday while Proposition 226, which would have required labor unions to obtain permission from members before using their dues for political contributions, was defeated.
The anti-bilingual education measure imposes a crash course in English,
normally lasting a year, to replace bilingual programs that teach non-English speakers in their native language as they gradually learn English, sometimes taking up to seven years.
Two other initiatives sponsored by public employee unions were headed toward defeat: Proposition 223, limiting school administrative spending to 5 percent, and Proposition 224, limiting Caltrans’ use of outside private engineers for highway work.
Even though 1.4 million California schoolchildren, a quarter of the total,
are officially classified as limited-English, bilingual education received little attention until businessman Ron Unz placed the initiative on the ballot.
Proposition 227 is the first public vote on bilingual education, which opponents say is used extensively in the United States but not in other nations with large immigrant populations. A victory would fuel the drive to eliminate the federal Office of Bilingual Education.
Unz said the initiative was opposed by President Clinton, all four leading gubernatorial candidates, the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties in California, and was outspent about 20-to-1 in television ads.
But Unz said the large margin of victory showed the solid grass-roots appeal of Proposition 227.
“That shows the people of California believe strongly that young children should be taught English as quickly as possible when they start school,” said Unz.
A spokeswoman for No on Proposition 227 said that a large coalition formed to oppose the initiative included parents, teachers and many Latino leaders.
“If Proposition 227 does pass, we will work to make sure that these kids have an opportunity to learn English and to succeed in our society,”
said Holli Thier, spokeswoman for the No on Proposition 227 drive.
Unz and other opponents of bilingual education declared that the 30-year-old program is a failure. They cited the low number of students who make the transition to mainstream English classes, about 6 percent a year, and the high dropout rate and low test scores among Latino students.
But supporters of bilingual education said the program, if properly run,
keeps students from falling behind as they learn English and builds a stronger language base for advanced academic learning.
The opponents of Proposition 227 are expected to seek a court order blocking the initiative while its constitutionality is litigated. Some local school districts may also test whether a “special-needs” waiver in the initiative is broad enough to allow many students to continue to receive bilingual education.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who opposed Proposition 227, said a Department of Education team is studying ambiguities in the initiative including the waivers, the relation to federal law, and how much native-language instruction is permissible.
“The just-passed initiative provides for a transition period of 60 days, and I will be contacting school districts within the next few weeks with preliminary guidance on this issue,” said Eastin.
Gov. Pete Wilson was the chairman of the campaign for Proposition 226,
the first test for a nationwide drive by Republicans for “paycheck protection,” their term for requiring permission from members before union dues are spent for political purposes.
The opponents of Proposition 226 declared victory shortly before midnight,
citing an overwhelming turnout by union members who also worked on the campaign against the initiative.
“We think it was working families who were the real victors in this election because they refused to let their voices be silenced,” said Judith Barish, spokeswoman for the no on Proposition 226 campaign.
Organized labor made defeat of the initiative a national cause. The AFL-CIO and the National Education Association, a teachers’ union, were among the national groups that helped raise more than $20 million for the campaign against the initiative.
Outspent 5-to-1, Wilson lamented that the Republican National Committee did not weigh in. His traditional allies, business groups, remained on the sideline to avoid a major partisan battle with unions, who make most of their contributions to Democratic candidates.
The backers of Proposition 226 thought they had an overwhelmingly popular issue as the initiative started out with the support of 72 percent of likely voters in a statewide Field Poll last fall, including a majority of Democrats and households with union members.
But support fell rapidly after opponents launched a six-week barrage of television ads, backed by phone banks, mailers and a door-to-door campaign.
A Field Poll before the election found the initiative trailing by 2 percentage points, with 2-to-1 opposition among Democrats and union households.
Opponents of Proposition 226 said a U.S. Supreme Court decision already allows union members to ask that their dues not be used for political purposes.
But initiative supporters said that workers’ right is not being enforced by the Clinton administration.
Supporters complained that the opposition campaign did not mention what the initiative actually does, focusing instead on its prominent out-of-state backers and their alleged agenda to weaken public schools, undermine regulation of managed-care health systems, and export jobs.
The initiative was written by Mark Bucher and two other Orange County businessmen after some back-to-basics candidates for local school board elections were defeated with the help of contributions from the California Teachers Association.
The drive to gather enough signatures to place the initiative on the ballot was struggling until J. Patrick Rooney, an Indiana insurance executive who supports school vouchers, recruited Wilson and Grover Norquist, head of a conservative group in Washington, D.C.
Rooney contributed $49,000 and Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform,
gave $441,000. As Norquist worked to elect Republican candidates to Congress in 1996, he often found himself battling the AFL-CIO, which used a special war chest to aid Democratic candidates.
When Proposition 226 plummeted in the polls, Norquist was quoted as saying he would continue the battle in other states. The AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney, scheduled a news conference in Washington for today to discuss how Californians voted on Proposition 226.
Bucher said he got the idea for the initiative while reading about a similar measure approved by voters in the state of Washington in 1992. Political contributions by the Washington Education Association are said to have dropped 70 percent after passage of the initiative.
Unz said he launched the drive for Proposition 227 after reading news reports of a boycott by the parents of 90 students at a Los Angeles elementary school who wanted their children taught in English, not through bilingual education.
Jerry Perenchio, the wealthy owner of the Univision Spanish-language television network, contributed $1.5 million to the campaign against the initiative, nearly half the total spent by opponents. But like the union-dues initiative, Proposition 227 started with broad public support, about 70 percent.
Unz worked hard, with mixed results, to prevent the initiative from becoming another racially divisive issue. Hotly contested bans on public services for undocumented immigrants and government affirmative action programs were approved, respectively, by 59 percent of California voters in 1994 and 55 percent in 1996.
A statewide Field Poll taken before the election found that the bilingual education initiative was supported by many likely Latino voters. But Latino support had dropped to 52 percent, down from nearly 70 percent several months earlier.
An odd moment came when Unz said that Wilson’s announcement of support for the initiative was “unfortunate.” Unz feared that the endorsement by Wilson, closely identified with the earlier divisive issues, would be used to stir racial controversy over his initiative.
Unz drafted the initiative with the aid of Alice Callaghan of Las Familias de Pueblo in Los Angeles, who helped organize the boycott by Latino students in 1996.
A co-sponsor of the initiative, Gloria Matta Tuchman, is a Latina first-grade teacher in Orange County who successfully uses the sheltered English immersion program that will be imposed by the initiative to replace bilingual education.
The honorary chairman of the initiative campaign is Jaime Escalante,
whose success in teaching calculus to inner-city Latino youths was portrayed in the movie, “Stand and Deliver.”
Mainly because of a teacher shortage, only 30 percent of the 1.4 million eligible students are receiving bilingual education. The rest receive variations of English as a second language, and 16 percent receive no special aid at all, according to the state Department of Education.
Nearly all of the bilingual programs are in Spanish, due to a shortage of teachers qualified in other languages. About 20 percent or 280,000 of the English learners speak a language other than Spanish.
Unz argued that the initiative would end the teacher shortage because knowledge of a second language is not needed to teach a sheltered English immersion program. He said aides who speak the native language of the child can be used in the classroom.
A superior court in Sacramento ruled earlier this year that the state law authorizing bilingual education expired in 1987. The state Board of Education, whose 11 members are appointed by Wilson, adopted a new flexible policy allowing local school districts to decide whether to use bilingual education.
Hoping to weaken support for Proposition 227, the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a long-stalled bill by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado,
allowing local districts to decide what method should be used to teach English learners.
Wilson vetoed the bill, saying it was too little, too late.” Voter approval of Proposition 227 would have overridden the Alpert bill, even if Wilson had signed it.