Bilingual vote fuels debate

School decision's impact goes beyond California

LOS ANGELES – In choosing to dismantle bilingual education, California voters have returned to their maverick ways and again framed a broader debate that could reach well beyond the Golden State.

The voters adopted Proposition 227 on Tuesday’s ballot 61 percent to 39 percent. The initiative would essentially end the giant bilingual program that has been a fixture in the public schools since the 1960s. It won despite opposition from most of California’s political leaders and teacher organizations.

Reaction to its victory ranged from the predictable lawsuits – the first was filed Wednesday morning in San Francisco – to pledges in Texas of continued support for the state’s bilingual curriculum.

“We strongly believe that [the proposition] is not in the interest of the children,” said Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which brought the San Francisco suit. MALDEF says the initiative is unconstitutional because it denies non-English-speaking children equal access to education.

The legal challenges, even if unsuccessful, could delay implementation of the measure for a year or longer, experts said. That helped calm the immediate fears of the state’s legions of bilingual teachers and administrators, who consider the proposition a threat to their jobs.

“People aren’t panicking,” said Maria Manzur, who heads a bilingual program for Spanish-speaking youngsters in the San Fernando Valley. “We expected it was going to pass. We were kind of prepared. . . . But as the reality sets in, it’s hard.”

In Texas, elected officials said they had no plans to rethink the state’s policies because of the California vote, although they added that some school districts could improve their performance in bilingual classrooms.

“If a bilingual program is not teaching children to read and comprehend in English as quickly as possible, it should be eliminated,” said Gov. George W. Bush. “But if a bilingual program is helping to achieve the goal of teaching children to read and comprehend in English, then we should applaud it and say well done.”

The Dallas Independent School District has stepped up efforts to recruit bilingual teachers and thus eyes California as an opportunity. The district employs 1,200 bilingual instructors and needs 630 more.

“We’ve already had two teachers call us [from California] this morning,” Vangie Cortez, DISD’s assistant superintendent for bilingual curriculum, said Wednesday. She added that California teachers may be willing to shift their careers to Texas even at lower pay.

“A lot of them aren’t asking about salaries – they’re asking about the stability of our program,” said Ms. Cortez.

DISD pays bilingual teachers an annual bonus of $ 3,000. The Los Angeles school district, whose salaries are higher overall, offers a $ 5,000 bonus.

Proposition 227 is the third measure in four years to reverse racial and immigration policies in the nation’s most-diverse state. The previous initiatives withdrew some government services from undocumented immigrants and scrapped affirmative action in state hiring and university admissions.

The arguments over the bilingual measure were not as racially charged as those that attended the earlier initiatives. One reason for this was the heavy support Proposition 227 enjoyed among Latino voters. Some polls showed nearly the same numbers of Hispanic voters favored the proposition as did whites, although there were indications the Latino vote ended up much closer Tuesday.

The measure was sponsored by software millionaire Ron Unz, a Republican who bills himself a champion of immigrant rights. Its opponents included both major political parties, all four of California’s gubernatorial candidates and President Clinton.

“All people believe that young children should be taught English as soon as possible,” Mr. Unz said after Tuesday’s vote. He later shrugged off the MALDEF suit, saying the initiative would survive any constitutional test.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll in San Francisco, likened the initiative’s popularity to that of the historic Proposition 13, the measure that slashed property taxes 20 years ago. It also had been opposed by most of California’s movers and shakers.

“Here again, the Legislature and the governor failed to act on an obvious problem,” said Mr. DiCamillo, noting that even the initiative’s opponents agreed the bilingual program needed some fixing. “So along comes this populist measure.”

But he and other observers said they doubted the initiative will spawn the string of copycat measures inspired by Proposition 13.

Dennis Simon, a political science professor at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, said that embracing Proposition 227 may not be wise for any politician who hopes to please the fast-growing ranks of Latino voters.

“I don’t think this is the vehicle to make those inroads,” Mr. Simon said.

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