Wilson endorses Prop. 227

The author of the June 2 initiative to end bilingual education regrets the governor's support, fearing it will generate a backlash

Gov. Pete Wilson broke his silence on Proposition 227 on Monday by endorsing the June 2 ballot initiative that would end bilingual education and simultaneously vetoed a bill that would have given districts more control over bilingual programs.

State Sen. Dede Alpert’s bill was touted as an alternative to Prop. 227 because it would have let educators choose how to teach English to public school children while requiring results.

Prop. 227 would mandate one statewide model, taught overwhelmingly in English.

Wilson criticized Alpert’s bill for failing to make English acquisition a top priority. He called the bill “too little and much too late”
and hailed Prop. 227 as an opportunity to reform the status quo.

But the governor’s glowing endorsement was quickly rebuffed by Prop.
227 backers.

“It is very unfortunate that the governor has chosen to endorse our initiative,” said Prop. 227 sponsor Ron 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 who have worked so hard over the past year to improve the public education of California’s immigrant children.”

Prop. 227 spokeswoman Sheri Annis added, “Most politicians are against us and most Californians are for us, and that’s kind of the way we like it.”

Unz, a Silicon Valley businessman who challenged Wilson for the Republican nomination in 1994, actively opposed the Wilson-backed Proposition 187,
a voter-approved ballot initiative that would have eliminated benefits and public schooling for undocumented immigrants. The courts threw out most of Prop. 187.

In campaigning for his initiative, Unz has courted Hispanics and vehemently fought off claims that Prop. 227 is an anti-immigrant measure. Recent polls show a majority of voters, including Hispanics, support the initiative.

Wilson’s press secretary Sean Walsh countered the Unz snub.

“It’s a free country and everyone is entitled to their opinion,
but Mr. Unz’s comments sound like little words from a little man,”
Walsh said. “It sounds as if Mr. Unz is falling into the pattern of those demagogues who fail to acknowledge that Pete Wilson is investing billions of dollars in California’s education system.”

Even if Wilson had signed the Alpert bill, it might have become moot on June 2. If successful, Prop. 227 would trump other laws on bilingual education.

The current state policy — changed by the Board of Education in March
— allows districts the freedom to choose bilingual programs that work locally.
In supporting Prop. 227, the governor went against the actions of his own Board of Education.

Wilson said Alpert’s bill would have imposed a “bureaucratic blizzard”
on local school districts.

“Bilingual education in California has been a serious failure,”
said Wilson. “(The bill) in fact fails to provide much hope of improvement.”

Alpert, D-Coronado, said Wilson had abrogated his responsibility to the children.

“This veto is simply shortsighted,” she said. “Yes, some of these children will survive academically, and anecdotal evidence will be that one or two may even excel. But too many will fall hopelessly, and unnecessarily, behind their classmates.”

Her bill would have essentially turned the state policy into law by letting school districts choose how to educate the 1.4 million English learners.
It would have mandated daily English lessons and required unsuccessful programs to be overhauled after two years.

The state Senate approved the initiative in its original form last summer.
But the bill then drew fierce opposition from Assembly Democrats and members of the Latino Caucus who saw it as an effort to undermine bilingual education.

When Prop. 227 threatened to eliminate bilingual education altogether,
some of the opposition to Alpert’s bill evaporated. A revised version cleared the Senate in early May.

“Had this bill passed a year ago, I think the chances that the governor would have signed it would have been pretty good,” said Gerald Hayward,
co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education. “Had the governor signed it, there probably wouldn’t have been an Unz initiative.”

Wilson’s endorsement of Prop. 227 contrasts with the position taken by Republican gubernatorial contender Dan Lungren, who publicly criticized the measure for thwarting local control. All three Democratic gubernatorial nominees oppose Prop. 227.

Holli Thier, a No on Prop. 227 spokeswoman, said the bipartisan opposition from candidates means more than Wilson’s veto and support for the Unz measure.

“All of our polling shows is that the most important thing is that every candidate for governor, Democrat and Republican, opposes Prop. 227,”
Thier said.

Staff writer Ethan Rarick and Associated Press contributed to this story.

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