SACRAMENTO — An initiative that would end most bilingual education programs in California’s public schools has strong support from voters in a new statewide poll, including two-thirds of Latinos.
A statewide Field Poll found that the initiative is doing slightly better at this point in the election cycle than initiatives on illegal immigration and affirmative action approved by voters in the last two general elections.
“Voters think that in order to be an American, you should speak English,” said Mark DiCamillo, Field Poll research director. “That’s what is really fueling the support for this particular initiative.”
The initiative sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz and Orange County teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman is favored by 69 percent of voters and opposed by 24 percent, according to the poll. Support was slightly lower among Latinos, 66 percent “yes” and 30 percent “no.”
Although this first Field Poll on the initiative shows strong support,
it is notably less than the dramatic lead in a Los Angeles poll in October
— 80 percent in favor among all the electorate and 84 percent among Latinos.
The strong support of Latino voters for the initiative headed for the June ballot seems to put them at odds with most elected Latino officials,
who oppose the initiative.
But some suspect that much of the gap between support by voters and opposition by Latino officials may be the result of questions in the polls that ask whether children should be taught in English, not whether bilingual education should be ended.
Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University education professor who studies bilingual education, said another Los Angeles Times poll found that 57 percent of Latinos in Ventura County support bilingual education.
“On the other hand, I think what these numbers (strong Latino support for the initiative) would be drawing on is the view that the kids need to learn English,” said Hakuta. “Programs that emphasize English is what they support.”
Bilingual education programs teach children in their native language,
gradually increasing their exposure to English. Students can be taught in their native language for as long as seven years, before transferring to all-English classes.
The initiative would require all students with limited English, unless a waiver is granted, to take a “sheltered English immersion” course normally lasting a year. Teachers in this program primarily speak English,
using pictures, gestures and some words from the native language.
Supporters of existing bilingual education programs say they allow immigrant children to keep pace with the course work of other children as they learn English. But opponents say current bilingual education often leaves students with a limited ability to use English.
Initiatives usually drop in the polls under fire from the opposition,
which has yet to begin waging a campaign. Opponents of the initiative sponsored by Unz and Tuchman are calling it an extremist, one-size-fits-all proposal that would do more harm than good.
Early polls showed Latinos supporting or evenly split on Proposition 187, which sought to cut public services to illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, a rollback of affirmative action programs. But by election day, about three-quarters of Latinos ended up voting against both initiatives.
Proposition 187 started with 64 percent support in the Field Poll, then passed in November 1994 with 59 percent. Proposition 209 started with 60 percent of the vote in the poll, then passed with 54 percent of the vote in November 1996. Proposition 187 has been blocked in the courts.
Predictably, the campaigns for and against the bilingual initiative had different views of the gap between the new Field Poll and the 2-month-old
Los Angeles Times poll.
“We have already seen a major slippage,” said Kelly Hayes-Raitt,
spokeswoman for the opposition, Citizens for an Educated America. “I don’t want to compare apples and oranges, but I think the numbers are going to continue to go down as we get closer to Election Day.”
Sherri Annis, spokeswoman for the initiative, said the Field Poll may have alienated some taxpayers by noting that the initiative appropriates
$50 million a year for English tutoring. She said a net savings would result from eliminating most bilingual education programs, costing $400 million a year.
“I think there is more dialogue and more misinformation about the initiative out there now,” said Annis. “We hope to clear that up by the time June rolls around.”
A second question by the Field Poll found that most voters think decisions about bilingual education should be made at the local level, rather than statewide.
A bill by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado, that would give local districts more flexibility on bilingual education stalled in the Assembly but will be taken up again next year.
The Field Poll found local control supported by 55 percent of respondents,
state control by 40 percent. Local control had even stronger support among Latinos, 61 percent, with 36 percent backing statewide controls.
Asked how long students should remain in bilingual education, voters gave an average reply of two years. One year was favored by 25 percent,
two years by 27 percent, and three to four years by 25 percent.
The poll was conducted by telephone Nov. 12-23 among a representative sample of 696 registered voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Here’s how the main question about support for the initiative was phrased in the Field Poll:
“This initiative requires that all public school instruction be conducted in English. It provides for initial short-term placement, not normally exceeding one year, in intensive, sheltered, English programs for children not fluent in English.
“It would also appropriate $50 million per year for 10 years to fund English instruction for individuals pledging to provide personal English tutoring to children in their community.”
Here’s how the initiative was described in the Los Angeles Times poll in October:
“There is a new initiative trying to qualify for the June primary ballot that would require all school instruction to be conducted in English and for students not fluent in English to be placed in a short-term English immersion program.”