SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson took a strong stand against bilingual education yesterday — endorsing an initiative, vetoing a bill, and denouncing the program as a failed experiment that harms children by delaying the learning of English.
The governor said that bilingual education, which teaches children in their native language for up to seven years, was kept afloat in California by the education establishment long after there was evidence that the program does not work.
“Intensive native-language programs like California’s are almost non-existent in other countries,” said Wilson, pointing to Israel,
Canada, France, Germany, Britain, Australia and other nations with large immigrant populations.
Wilson gave a firm endorsement to Proposition 227 on the June 2 ballot,
an initiative that would eliminate most bilingual education programs and replace them with a quick course in English normally lasting about a year.
He also vetoed a bill that would allow school districts to decide how to teach English to those who don’t speak the language. While some viewed the legislation as an alternative to the initiative, the Republican governor dismissed it as “too little and much too late.”
But his support of Proposition 227 was virtually jeered, not cheered,
by the author of the measure, Ron Unz, the wealthy Silicon Valley businessman defeated by Wilson in the Republican gubernatorial primary four years ago.
Unz suggested that the endorsement by Wilson might be used by opponents to paint the initiative as being anti-immigrant or anti-Latino. Wilson was a strong backer of Proposition 187, a curb on services to illegal immigrants blocked by the courts, and Proposition 209, a rollback of government affirmative action programs.
“It is very unfortunate that the governor has chosen to endorse our initiative,” said Unz. “It would be grossly opportunistic and deceitful if our opponents seized upon Wilson’s endorsement to attempt to discredit those of us involved in the campaign.”
Sean Walsh, Wilson’s press secretary, said Unz seems to want to join those “who demagogue Pete Wilson as being anti-Latino,” despite the governor’s record of putting money and reforms into schools that will benefit Latino children.
“Small comments from a little man,” said Walsh.
Backers of bilingual education said that the program has not received a fair trial in California, where less than a third of the 1.4 million students who speak limited English are in full-blown bilingual programs.
The rest take variations of English as a second language or receive no formal help. But the supporters of bilingual education also acknowledge that some programs are not working well and need reform.
“I’m sorry he didn’t get into the game in a more meaningful way sooner and help us to fix this,” said Delaine Eastin, state superintendent for public instruction. “It’s very disappointing. I would have expected better of the governor.”
Advocates say bilingual education allows students to keep up with their classmates while learning English and helps them perform advanced academic work later on.
But opponents contend that many bilingual education programs are producing students who have trouble reading and writing English, hampering their ability to compete for jobs.
“If we fail to reform bilingualism, we send a terrible message to children everywhere that California is not serious about giving them the keys to the American Dream,” said Wilson.
Proposition 227 has drawn national attention as the first broad public vote on whether children who speak limited English should be taught in their native language or be made to learn English quickly. President Clinton announced his opposition to the measure earlier this month.
Rosalie Salinas of San Diego, co-chair of the No on Proposition 227 campaign,
said Wilson’s endorsement of the initiative is overshadowed by opposition from all four leading gubernatorial candidates, including Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren.
“They want to see education as a focus, and all of them agree that this is not the way to go,” said Salinas.
Proposition 227 has held a commanding lead in public opinion surveys.
A statewide Field Poll late last month found that the initiative is supported by 71 percent of likely voters and 58 percent of likely Latino voters.
The public support for the initiative prompted the Legislature to send Wilson a long-stalled bill that would let local school districts decide which program to use for English learners. SB 6 by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado,
was vetoed by Wilson yesterday.
The bill also would have required schools to modify their programs if tests showed that their English learners were below the district average after two years.
The state Board of Education adopted a similar policy earlier this year when a court ruled that the state law requiring bilingual education expired a decade ago. Alpert said legislation is needed to give the policy the force of regulation and to add the accountability of testing.
Wilson said he sympathized with Alpert’s four-year effort to advance her legislation, but believes that most parents think the “bill is too little and much too late.”
Alpert said Wilson’s staff requested changes in the bill last Thursday that “would have compromised the legislative process and the interests of California’s bilingual students.”
The passage of Proposition 227 would have overridden Alpert’s bill, even if Wilson had signed her measure into law. But backers of the bill thought that its passage might be used as an argument against approving the initiative.