It all formed innocuously enough, this lethal little gurgling patch of quicksand that will dominate the next six months of California politics.
Last year, in an impoverished pool-table pocket of downtown Los Angeles,
a frustrated coterie of Latino families kept their children out of the Ninth Street School for nearly two weeks, insisting that their kids be extricated from the school’s bilingual-instruction program. Their complaint: The school,
maddeningly, refused to teach English to children from Spanish-speaking homes until they learned how to read and write in Spanish. (California school districts are required by the state Board of Education to offer foreign language-based classes for younger students so that their lack of facility with English doesn’t impede their academic performance.) But the parents ultimately prevailed, and the children were moved to English classes.
The boycott made the papers for a day or two but then faded from view,
another fleeting story in a city more preoccupied with box-office receipts than the latest what-else-is-new snafu in the L.A. Unified School District.
Ah, but … watching, crowlike, from his lair in Palo Alto was software entrepreneur and opportunist extraordinaire Ron Unz. Unz—astute, bookish,
monotonal, unswervingly uncharismatic, and filthy rich—had already made a modest name for himself. His high-profile fight against anti-immigrant Proposition 187 had led to a GOP primary challenge in 1994 against Gov.
Pete Wilson, in which he received 34 percent of the vote. Now, however,
he was at loose ends, and if history has proven anything, it is that few things are as ominous as a politically ambitious multimillionaire with time on his hands. (See Perot, Ross; Riordan, Richard; Huffington, Michael—you get the idea.)
Unz had already identified bilingual education as the Next Big Issue coming out of California, the Harbinger State. He was already hatching a plan to put on the statewide ballot in June 1988 a proposition that would mandate a dismantling of bilingual instruction. He firmly believed what opponents of bilingual instruction have charged for years: that most Spanish-speaking kids who aren’t forced to learn English early on simply do not perform as well as those who are.
What Unz had not crunched out was how to market the notion without attracting the same racist label festooning the loud, divisive campaigns that swirled around 187 and the anti-affirmative-action Proposition 209. His own anti-187 credentials were secure, to be sure, but he also was Ron Unz—astute and filthy rich, yes, but also (everybody!) bookish, monotonal, and unswervingly uncharismatic. The Ninth Street School boycott presented the perfect solution,
the masterstroke symbol: If Latinos could see that a great many people within their own ranks had become disenchanted with the concept of bilingual education,
the issue would take on an entirely different cast.
So Unz came to L.A. and set up shop for "English for the Children"
near Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center in the heart of the immigrant-dominated downtown garment district. He put up $100,000 to get things rolling and installed as campaign co-chair Gloria Matta Tuchman, a popular and widely known Mexican-American elementary school teacher who has long been a vibrant proponent of English instruction for minority students. As summer ended,
the petition drive was well on its way to collecting the 433,269 signatures needed to qualify for the June ballot—and politicians were scrambling to determine how to position themselves for yet another harrowing excursion into the explosive realm of melting-pot politics.
At stake is a $320 million program that attempts to educate nearly 1.4 million kids whose first language is not English, 900,000 of whom come from Latino backgrounds. No one agrees on how effective the program has been,
in part because different school districts use so many different approaches.
Various studies have suggested various results, intensifying the political migraine. If past ballot measures are any indication, Unz’s brainchild will likely become another litmus test of Califoria’s testy relationship with an immigrant population growing by leaps and bounds.
Riordan, to his credit, ventured out on the issue in October, essentially saying he believes the measure too draconian, but leaving the door open to support it later if no suitable alternative comes along. Others wouldn’t even go that far. Spokespersons for Los Angeles county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky
(a potential candidate for L.A. mayor in 2001) and outgoing city councilman Richard Alarcon (potential state assembly candidate) both said their bosses had not read the proposed initiative and would be reluctant to comment.
LAUSD board member Vickie Castro, another local pol with higher ambitions,
and Latino labor leader Miguel Contreras simply didn’t return phone calls.
Who can blame them? The issue is a cosmic, time-warping wormhole to nowhere.
Democrats hardly want to appear to defend a failed program, but they don’t want to risk alienating what remains of their core liberal constituency,
either. Yet Republicans should be even more wary after suffering deep bruises for their vocal support of Props 187 and 209; many are understandably mortified at the prospect of being associated with a movement that could be seen as racist. "It’s another attack on the Latino community," said state Democratic Party chairman Art Torres of Los Angeles, in a warning shot that should make politicians of any stripe think at least twice before making a public pronouncement.
Latino Republicans were exhibiting paranoid behavior as early as September,
when they lobbied party leaders (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to avoid endorsing the initiative at the annual GOP convention. Ernest Feliciano,
president of the California chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, told the San Jose Mercury News: "I think everyone agrees—our children should be taught in English. But we believe this could be construed as an anti-Hispanic issue. What we’re saying is, let’s not give the Democrats another club to beat us up with." But the pretzel logic of the issue continues to twist and confound. Like 187 and 209, an anti-bilingual proposition figures to be enormously appealing to a majority of voters, for good reasons or ill; and since when have the elected among us been able to resist surfing the curl of a populist tsunami?
Not very damned often. But Unz, in his quasi-soothing, inflectionless way, has attempted to assure the handwringers that there is no reason to worry. "Ninety percent of the Latinos we talk to are in favor of what we’re trying to do," he said. "They agree with us that bilingual education has been a dismal failure. The media has been friendly. People in Sacramento have been very receptive." Still, the moaning ghosts of propositions past float around in the political ether, keeping tortured souls awake long past last call.
Unz said he is disappointed that his fellow Republicans haven’t been more vocal in support of the initiative. But the poll numbers regarding Latino support for the measure have been all over the map. A 1996 national poll of urban Hispanic parents by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Equal Opportunity (of which Unz is a board member) found that 81 percent wanted their children taught in English. A Los Angeles Times poll of California voters, published in October, found that 84% of Latinos surveyed supported the initiative, although the Times noted that those numbers may be soft, i.e. contradicted later. Meanwhile, a statewide poll by the William C. Velasquez Institute found that 80 percent of registered Latino voters favored bilingual education. So pick your poison.
Everyone is watching these numbers. Latinos have demonstrated increasing clout in recent city and state elections, building on the outrage inspired by Prop 187. The growing muscle of Latinos in Sacramento was underlined by the choice of Fresno’s Cruz Bustamante as Assembly speaker—the first Latino in state history to hold the powerful post. Heavily Latino L.A. unions helped carry the day in the spring elections that saw labor’s slate of charter reform commission candidates perform magnificently—a blow to Riordan’s hopes for a cherry-picked panel that would work toward awarding his office more power. And other parties are enjoying the trickle-down too; Cardinal Mahony and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, with Latinos comprising some 70 percent of its 4 million parishioners, may gain politically. "Someday we’ll come back and thank Pete Wilson for what he did," said the Rev.
Pat Murphy, former pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church in Sun Valley,
one parish instrumental in fomenting grassroots Latino activism. "It has been a blessing of sorts, in that 187 and 209 became a galvanizing force that shocked people into taking action."
Obfuscated in the entire debate—or at least in the skimpy debate to date—is whether the outlawing of bilingual education is actually the right thing to do. That small matter apparently will have to wait, as the players wet a finger and try to gauge which way the wind is blowing, all the while praying until the blood beads on their foreheads that the wind isn’t blowing every direction at once. "They can’t hide their heads in the sand forever,"
Don’t be so sure, Ron.