Anti-Bilingual Drive's Tone Is Key for Latinos

Education: Poll finds most favor teaching in English, but sentiment may turn against the initiative if campaign seems to bash the ethnic group.

Californians may strongly oppose the state’s system of bilingual education. But the consensus quickly unravels over how it should be fixed–and whether voters should even try.

Nowhere is that split more striking than within the state’s growing Latino community, where much of the political establishment has lined up against an anti-bilingual education ballot proposal currently favored by 84% of Latino voters.

Is the political leadership out of step with the larger Latino community on an issue of enormous practical consequence? Or is the leadership several steps ahead, as suggested by the history of two other issues with strong emotional resonance–illegal immigration and affirmative action?

Partisans on both sides of the bilingual education issue professed little surprise at a new Times poll that found enormous support for a ballot proposal promoting English-only instruction that would have limited exceptions. Students could continue receiving bilingual instruction if their parents specifically requested it and could prove that their children would learn better that way. Under the current system, students not fluent in English may be taught for years in their native language.

The measure, currently in the signature-gathering phase, is aimed for the June ballot.

Approaching the bilingual education issue from vastly different directions, opposing sides converge on two key points: They agree that all children must become fluent in English. And they concur that the current system ill serves the needs of those children.

For now, that sentiment translates into overwhelming 80% support for the ballot measure, according to the Times poll.

Where the two sides sharply diverge–and where some Latino political leaders differ from their larger community–is over how to remedy the system and whether the blunt instrument of a ballot initiative is better than a legislative solution.

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As Rafael Gonzalez, an initiative opponent, put it, “If you ask Latino parents if they want their children to learn English, you’d probably have close to 100% saying ‘yes.’ But the initiative process opens a whole political Pandora’s box of divisional politics.”

Indeed, analysts suggest that the tone of the debate just now getting underway could go a considerable distance toward deciding whether instruction almost exclusively in English becomes state law with the broad support it currently enjoys.

The proposed June ballot measure would require English language instruction for the state’s roughly 1.3 million children, or one in four, who are not fluent in English. About 77% of those students speak Spanish at home.

The measure’s leading proponent, Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, frankly admits that the initiative’s goal, for all intents and purposes, is to end bilingual education in California. To the measure’s co-sponsor, Santa Ana schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, the bilingual education system has “failed a whole generation.”

Opponents of the initiative don’t necessarily challenge that. They just disagree–fiercely–over why it has happened.

“Bilingual education has never been implemented properly,” said Art Torres, a former state senator and chairman of the California Democratic Party, who points to the state’s huge shortage of bilingual teachers.

There are contradictory data to bolster both sides of the political argument.

Some studies have found that bilingual programs prepare children better academically. Others have found that such students never become fully fluent in English.

What those sorts of studies fail to reflect, of course, is the raw emotionalism that surrounds the issue, particularly for some older Latinos.

Harry Pachon, a Claremont Graduate University expert on Latino politics, recalls how decades ago children who lacked English skills were placed in classrooms set aside for the mentally retarded. Even so, forgetting that ugly history, Pachon said his surveys routinely find what the Times poll turned up, namely that Latino parents are even more enthusiastic about English instruction than white parents.

The pertinent question, he said, is whether Latino support for the ballot measure will hold up through the searing heat of a statewide campaign–particularly given the still-raw feelings over Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-illegal-immigration initiative, and last year’s Proposition 209, banning racial and gender preferences in state and local governments.

“The problem becomes when the usual cast of suspects starts showing up on behalf of the initiative,” Pachon said, citing rabid anti-immigration foes. “It will be interesting to see how [initiative backers] finesse it so this doesn’t become perceived as the ‘third strike’ against the Latino community.”

The polling history of Propositions 187 and 209 offers a cautionary lesson for opponents of bilingual education.

A Times poll conducted in September 1994–only two months before the vote–found that Latinos supported Proposition 187 by a margin of 52% to 42%. By election day, after a harshly negative campaign, 77% of Latinos voters ended up opposing the measure.

Similarly, a July 1996 poll on Proposition 209–four months before the vote–found Latinos essentially split. On election day, though, 76% opposed the rollback in state affirmative action programs.

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San Mateo County Supervisor Ruben Barrales said the views of Latino leaders are likely to gain importance as the campaign unfolds–and the debate becomes more polarized.

“Folks will begin looking at the different individuals and organizations to hear what they’re saying,” said Barrales, a Latino Republican who has held off endorsing the Unz initiative until he feels confident about the direction of the campaign.

Barrales cited Wednesday’s endorsement of the measure by Jaime Escalante, the legendary former East Los Angeles calculus teacher, as one encouraging sign that the campaign may not turn into another round of Latino bashing.

Once voters start looking to their political leaders, Barrales suggested, it will become clear whether the Latino political establishment and the community it represents are in lock step or marching in different directions.

Times education writer Richard Lee Colvin contributed to this story.

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