In California, English-only proposition not a wedge issue after all

LOS ANGELES — California is known for creating “wedge” issues — measures that can divide the electorate for political effects. In the recent past they have included ending affirmative action and denying welfare to immigrants, each driving a wedge between racial minorities and whites.

Another such wedge issue was supposed to be Proposition 227, which would essentially end bilingual education in the state.

The expectation was that most white, English-speaking voters would approve of the proposal to immerse all students totally in English-language instruction for all their subjects, while non-English-speaking parents, particularly Spanish-speaking Latinos, would object.

But it doesn’t seem to be working out as a wedge issue. The most recent Field Poll has found that Proposition 227, which will be on Tuesday’s ballot here, not only has an overwhelming 71 percent support among all voters surveyed, but also, according to its chief sponsor, is being backed by 60 percent of Latinos.

Ron Unz, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur who lost to Gov. Pete Wilson in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1994, says that despite the opposition of some Latino political activists and bilingual education teachers, most Latino parents agree that their children will have a much more promising future if they are given a massive dose of English in even the earliest grades.

He says that the current bilingual education system in the state has been a failure, with fully one-fourth of California’s 5.6 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade unable to understand English well enough to function effectively in class. Only about five percent of students with no or only limited use of English are currently able, he says, to be moved into all-English classes in a year.

Mr. Unz says it has been clearly established that children learn languages quicker at early ages and that failure to immerse them in English will severely impair their future job prospects. Under Proposition 227, children not functional in English would be placed in special classes for no more than a year before being moved into all-English classes.

The California legislature, which has long dragged its feet on the issue, has just passed a bill that would provide a three-year period to move children who speak little English into regular English-only classes. But Proposition 227, if approved, would supersede it.

The primary opposition to Proposition 227 comes from California teachers unions, the California PTA and, Mr. Unz says, from bilingual education professionals, including textbook manufacturers. They argue that total or near-total English immersion is an untested scheme that puts children of immigrant parents at risk and that parents should be able to decide what’s the best approach to teaching them.

Mr. Wilson, who has been “leaning” toward supporting Proposition 227, says “the most vocal and strident criticism comes from self-appointed activists who are trying to tell Latino parents that it is somehow racist for them to want their children to be schooled in English as early as possible.”

Proposition 227 includes another provision that its foes hope will erode support. It would appropriate $ 50 million a year for 10 years to fund classes for adults who want to learn English and in turn would agree to tutor children in their communities.

Richie Ross, a Sacramento political consultant who is running the “no on 227″ campaign says this provision in the end will scuttle the proposition because voters will object to the expenditure on a “stupid” scheme with no enforcement provisions.

Mr. Ross cites the history of California initiatives in predicting 227’s rejection by the voters. Of 300 propositions submitted for ballot position, he says, only 85 have qualified in the past 10 years, and only 13 or 14 have been passed. But Mr. Unz says ending bilingual education has “the highest support of any contested initiative in California history. If we win on June 2,” he says, “it may be the beginning of the end of bilingual education.”

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun’s Washington bureau.



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