Bilingual Boondoggle

Beating Gray Davis, in English

Republicans who once daydreamed of defeating California Gov. Gray Davis this year over those rolling blackouts that aren’t happening anymore have just been handed a fantastic new issue to use against the Democrat incumbent – but only if they’re willing to set aside their fear of criticizing the bilingual-education establishment.

In 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, the initiative that effectively ended bilingual education in the state. Under the plan, sponsored by Ron K. Unz, kids who didn’t know English very well would have to learn it in the classroom, rather than spend several years receiving native-language instruction that failed to prepare them for life in the United States. Test scores tell an amazing story of success. In 1998, 21 percent of Hispanic students ranked at the 50th percentile or higher for reading and 27 percent managed the same for math. In 2001, these figures jumped to 35 percent and 46 percent, respectively – an enormous and encouraging improvement.

Now the state board of education, dominated by Davis appointees, would gut Prop. 227. Under current law, kids can get out of English-language classes only if their parents sign waivers. The state board, however, would give teachers the same authority. It would also delete the provision requiring that children spend the first month of each school year in English classrooms.

In short, the bilingual-ed establishment would have limited-English children back in its clutches, where it would condemn them to a mis-education lasting for years – and with consequences lasting for lifetimes. "The combination of these two changes would essentially reestablish California’s system of bilingual education for 1.5 million immigrant students," wrote Unz in an e-mail last week.

Davis opposed Prop. 227 when he was running for governor in 1998. But so did just about every politician in the state, including Republican nominee Dan Lungren. The only prominent figure to support it was Los Angeles mayor Dick Riordan, who is now a Republican candidate for governor. Conservatives may have plenty of complaints about Riordan, but in this instance he acted bravely and rightly on a matter of crucial importance.

Riordan should now use this issue against Davis aggressively, and so should his GOP primary opponents, Bill Jones and Bill Simon. There are two possible outcomes, both of them good. The first is that the state board will back away from its proposal – a very real possibility given that Davis himself has blocked legislative efforts to undo parts of Prop. 227, perhaps realizing that he must uphold the will of the voters. (Prop. 227 passed with 61 percent support.) If this doesn’t happen, however, Davis’s Republican opponent will have a marvelous issue to use for months.

For Your Reading Pleasure:

Unz is keeping close track of this story on his website, and he provides plenty of links. Two of the best stories on this controversy include Michael Barone’s online-only column for U.S. News & World Report and Dan Walters’ recent piece in the Sacramento Bee.

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