WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration announced its opposition to Proposition 227 yesterday, the same day that Gov. Pete Wilson all but endorsed the initiative that would end most bilingual education programs in California’s public schools.
The debate over the highly contentious June 2 ballot proposition is certain to heat up soon as administration officials begin arriving in California in the coming weeks to campaign against the measure.
This weekend, President Clinton plans a trip to the state, though it was unclear yesterday whether he will address the issue in addition to attending planned political events and visiting with his daughter, Chelsea, at Stanford University.
While rejecting the ballot initiative, Clinton’s Department of Education argued for a change in how English is taught to students who don’t speak the language.
“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 .?.?. initiative,” said Education Secretary Richard Riley.
But the initiative would put limited-English students in a one-year sheltered immersion program before putting them in regular classes. And that, Riley said, “is just plain wrong.”
“Proposition 227 may 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,”
Riley said in his statement.
But Riley proposed that bilingual education programs across the country aim to teach children English within three years — an idea that did not sit well with some educators and Latino activists. Under existing bilingual education programs that would be ended by Proposition 227, students can be taught in their native language for up to seven years while they learn English.
Wilson said yesterday he had not decided whether to back the initiative.
“I’m strongly leaning that way,” he said at a Sacramento news conference. “I haven’t made a judgment yet.”
The Republican governor, long a critic of the Democratic president, also blasted Clinton for meddling in California affairs.
“I frankly think he has no business, I think the U.S. Department of Education has no business, substituting his judgment for that of the people of California,” Wilson said.
Polls show that up to 70 percent of California voters support Proposition 227 authored by Ron Unz, a wealthy businessman and unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1994. Some polls have shown substantial support among Latino voters.
“We’re disappointed that President Clinton chose to go against the wishes of most California voters,” said Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the Proposition 227 campaign. “It seems as though he’s completely played into the hands of the bilingual education lobby.”
Predictably, the campaign against Proposition 227, Citizens for an Educated America, was “very pleased that the president has recognized that Proposition 227 is fatally flawed,” said campaign spokeswoman Holli Thier.
But while Clinton’s position on the ballot measure gratified many leading Latino activist groups, his goal for three-year bilingual education programs did not.
“We oppose any kind of limit,” said Ambrosio Rodriguez, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.
“Bilingual education works best when it is run by local schools.”
Bilingual education has come under attack from critics who say that teaching children in their native language hinders rather than helps them learn English and perform well in school. Supporters of bilingual education say rushing children into English-only classes does the same thing.
Bilingual education programs teach children core subjects, such as social studies and reading, in their native language while trying to teach them English. Proposition 227 would require children be immersed in a one-year English program, then take their core subjects in classes where only English is spoken.
The measure pits the majority of California voters — including 57 percent of Latino voters, according to a poll by the California Public Policy Institute
— against the Latino activists and educators, some of whom brand the measure as “racist.”
As a result, the initiative puts the Clinton administration in the awkward position of trying to satisfy both the educators, who generally support Democrats, and the California voters whose support Democrats need this year in battles for the governorship, a Senate seat and House seats.
The proposal for three-year bilingual education programs may be one way to seek the middle ground.
“The president is concerned about the impact of that state ballot initiative,” said White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. “We understand the public sentiment in California, and one can easily say we are flying in the face of whatever the conventional wisdom is in California about the popularity of that measure.”
McCurry said the administration opposed the Unz initiative because its passage would make it more difficult to defeat bills in Congress aimed at ending federal support of bilingual programs. He said the measure also would jeopardize Clinton’s budget proposal for a 17 percent increase in funding for bilingual teachers.
Those backing the measure anticipated, as did Wilson, that Clinton would be on the losing side of yet another popular, yet controversial California ballot initiative.
In 1994, the president spoke out against Proposition 187, the successful measure, now blocked by the courts, that barred most illegal immigrants from state benefits. In 1996 he opposed Proposition 209, another successful initiative, which banned racial and gender preferences in California’s state and local government programs.
Wilson was a strong supporter of both Propositions 187 and 209.
Staff writer Ed Mendel contributed to this report.