The Clinton administration announced yesterday its opposition to a popular California initiative that would severely curtail bilingual education in the nation’s most populous state.
Polls show that the June 2 primary ballot measure – known officially as Proposition 227 and dubbed “English for the Children” by proponents – has strong backing from the state’s electorate, including black and Hispanic voters.
Opponents, however, have been pressuring the administration for months to come out against the measure.
President Clinton, who is scheduled to leave for a trip to California on Friday, may speak out against the initiative while there, presidential spokesman Michael McCurry said.
Twice before, the president has publicly opposed popular California ballot initiatives.
In 1994, he spoke against passage of Proposition 187, a ban on state government public spending on education and health for children of illegal immigrants. Nevertheless, it passed overwhelmingly.
In 1996, Mr. Clinton came out against Proposition 209, which bans racial and sexual preferences and quotas in public universities and state government jobs. That initiative also passed overwhelmingly.
Yesterday, the White House let the Department of Education take the lead in opposing Proposition 227.
Attempting to strike a middle ground, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said he would encourage school systems to try to move immigrant children from learning in their native language to learning in English within three years of their beginning bilingual education programs.
But his language was conciliatory. “I join all Californians who are unhappy with the status quo and I understand the frustration that is encouraging many voters to think about voting for the Unz initiative,” Mr. Riley said in a prepared statement handed out at a press briefing yesterday.
Ron Unz, a computer software entrepreneur, heads the campaign to pass the initiative, which would put non-English-speaking children in a one-year English immersion program before sending them on to regular classes taught in English.
Under the present system in California, many immigrant children not proficient in English get almost all instruction in their native language, while also being coached in English for about a half-hour a day. As a result, many of them never learn to read and write in English, critics say.
Mr. Riley called Proposition 227 “just plain wrong.” It may, he said, “satisfy people’s sense of frustration, but ultimately it is counterproductive to our common goal of making sure children learn English while making academic progress in other subjects as well.”
Marshall “Mike” Smith, the Education Department’s acting deputy secretary, conducted the press briefing instead of Mr. Riley, whose return to Washington from the Midwest was delayed by inclement weather.
In addressing reporters, Mr. Smith took a slightly harder line in defense of bilingual education than his boss did in his prepared statement. During questioning, Mr. Smith said he was unaware of any voter frustration in California over bilingual education or that Mr. Riley had used the word “frustration” at least twice in his prepared statement.
As to why the administration finally spoke out against the initiative, Mr. Unz said, “Behind the president’s move is political pressure from school administrators and the bilingual-education lobby.”
An opponent of the initiative who has ties to the White House acknowledged as much, saying that presidential advisers Bruce Reed, a “New Democrat,” and Rahm Emanuel, an ideological centrist if not a “certified” New Democrat, have been arguing for months that the president should “triangulate” the issue.
“They urged the president to take a position that goes some way toward satisfying [bilingual education supporters] while not totally alienating parents who support the California initiative,” an official with an anti-Proposition 227 group said privately.
Sherri Annis, the initiative campaign’s spokeswoman, said one thing that upsets parents is that California school records show that “only 6.7 percent of the children in bilingual education programs move on to mainstream English classes each year.”
But Delia Pompa, director of the Education Department’s bilingual education and minority languages office, said that one reason is the sheer numbers of immigrant children entering the program each year, especially in Los Angeles.
Miss Annis disputed that explanation, however, saying that the “quantity of immigrants has been lessening in the last few years, which should make those numbers rise tremendously, but in fact the rates show no growth at all.”
Bilingual education opponents argue that generations of immigrant children learned English quickly simply through being thrown into an English-speaking environment and that bilingual education, a recent phenomenon, retards the learning of English and benefits mainly teachers and administrators.
A solid 63 percent majority of likely voters favor the initiative, according to an April 4-9 Los Angeles Times poll of 1,105 registered votes in the state. Among blacks sampled, 67 percent favored it, and among Hispanics, 50 percent favored it.
But even such overwhelming opposition to bilingual education doesn’t deter those who favor continuing the status quo.
“We are pleased that the administration has come out against 227, a voter initiative that would hurt California and its children,” said Ambrosio Rodriguez, a lawyer in Washington with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In arguing against the initiative, Mr. Smith said, “The best data that we have, the best research that we have, suggests that the one-year immersion structure . . . is a major mistake. The movement under way in California is not based in sound policy or research.”
But in response to a question, the Education Department official acknowledged that “nobody has really studied one-year immersion per se, because it’s never been tried.”
Mr. Unz, however, maintained that the Catholic schools in America are “so successful with immigrant children precisely because they use immersion.”