Anaheim, Calif. — Although four presidential prospects spoke at the California Republican Convention in Anaheim September 26-28, none of them got the attention paid to "English for the Children."
"English" is an initiative proposed for next June’s California ballot that would require all public school instruction to be conducted in English. It needs 433,000 voter signatures by November to be placed on the ballot. If enacted it would end native-language instruction of students not fluent in English—primarily affecting 1.3 million Hispanic students,
23% of California’s public school attendees.
The initiative is the brainchild of Silicon Valley industrialist Ron Unz, who drew 35% of the vote in a primary challenge to moderate GOP Gov.
Pete Wilson in 1994. Unz says he has so far spent $150,000 of his own money on the signature drive.
"My goal now is to have the initiative pass overwhelmingly with the votes of all the different ethnic groups, native-born and immigrants,"
declared Unz. In fact, that may be easier than getting many local GOP leaders to back it.
A resolution endorsing "English for the Children" was handily passed by the convention delegates, but not without fractious debate. "The Democrats will certainly run out there and say this is just another example of’ Hispanic bashing and that they [Republicans] hate people who speak Spanish,"
State Party Chairman Mike Schroeder told reporters before the convention.
"As the son of immigrants, I strongly believe that people should learn English. But that doesn’t mean we should attack Hispanics and Spanish speakers, which is how this debate will be framed."
A number of other party chieftains, including State Assembly Republican Leader Bill Leonard and Rod Pacheco, the lone Hispanic Republican in the state assembly, say they oppose the Unz initiative.
State Atty. Gen. and 1998 gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren has not declared against the initiative. But when I spoke to him, he sounded as if he were leaning against it.
"Bilingual education is largely a failure, but I don’t know about this initiative," Lungren said. "For one thing, it would force a particular approach on every school district in California and that would go against my belief that local school districts should have as much control and power as possible."
Lungren is concerned about the initiative’s requirement that $50 million per year for the next decade be appropriated for funding for individuals pledging to provide personal English tutoring to children in their community—although that figure is less than one-sixth of what California is now spending on bilingual programs.
But the chief argument voiced by anti-"English" Republicans was political. They fear the reaction in the Hispanic community, which voted 72% for President Clinton in 1996.
"I just can’t get over how cowardly these Republican leaders are on this issue," retorted Unz. "They all say bilingual education is a failure, but are opposing the means of getting rid of it because they want to avoid being tarred as anti-immigrant. And the worst thing about it is there’s nothing to this."
"I haven’t read the [Unz] initiative yet, but from what I’ve heard and read about it, I’m for it," said Steve Moses, a prominent Democratic contributor and Friend of Al (Gore), whom I visited two days after the GOP convention.
"Personally, I think all kids in California should learn Spanish because the demographics of our state and the world economy make it important,"
Moses said. "But everyone should be taught in English as a first language.
Bilingual education doesn’t help [Hispanic] kids assimilate, and I hear a lot of folks say it’s racist to say that these kids have to be taught in Spanish."
One of Unz’s chief supporters in this effort is Fernando Vega, a Clinton-Gore campaign leader in California. "People are not looking at it as a Republican or Democratic issue," said Vega, "if [Republicans] oppose [the initiative], they send a message that they want to keep Hispanics ignorant in the area of education.
Initiative supporters say that with a properly run campaign, the GOP could actually gain Hispanic votes through the referendum, pointing in particular to a June Los Angeles Times poll that showed 83% of the Latino residents of Orange County opposed bilingual education methods.