NO ONE CAN accuse President Clinton of jumping on the bandwagon with his decision this week to campaign against California’s Proposition 227.

The initiative, which would severely curtail bilingual education programs,
is supported by about 60 percent of the state’s voters — including about half of Latino voters, according to most polls.

Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, who sponsored the initiative, argues that students who know little or no English would be better served by putting them in a one-year intensive English program. Unz comes to the debate well armed with anecdotes about the failures of bilingual education, including cases in which native-language classes became a long-term remedial track for too many immigrant children.

Frankly, the opposition to Proposition 227 has not done a good job of countering the articulate Unz. The No on 227 campaign has not offered a clear alternative to the simplistic Unz initiative, and the status quo is difficult to defend.

So the Clinton administration’s entry in the debate should help voters focus on potential consequences of the “one-size-fits- all” initiative.
Administration officials not only came out with a scathing analysis of what’s wrong with the Unz initiative, they presented a more flexible alternative.

In coming out strongly against the measure yesterday, Clinton’s Education Department provided the following for Californians to consider:

— The “best research” available suggests that a one-year immersion program would be “a major mistake,” said acting Deputy Education Secretary Marshall Smith.

— The initiative may run afoul of federal civil rights laws, because U.S. court rulings have required schools to make accommodations for national-origin minority students with limited English proficiency.

— A more reasonable national goal — not requirement — would be a three-year limit on bilingual education.

“The Unz initiative is a direct attack on local control of education,”
Education Secretary Richard Riley said. Clinton, who was criticized for not campaigning actively against the anti-affirmative action Prop. 209 two years ago, should be prepared to personally engage in the 227 debate. The three main Democratic contenders for governor oppose 227, but Republican Dan Lungren has remained neutral. He needs to take a stand.

The president’s participation should help raise the public’s attention level on this critical education-policy issue.

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