Bilingual debate becomes partisan

Prop. 227: Wilson leans toward backing initiative that would end bilingual classes.

SACRAMENTO — The battle for the future of bilingual education in California turned sharply partisan Monday, after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson said he is strongly leaning toward supporting the June ballot initiative that would all but dismantle bilingual programs in public schools.

In Washington, Education Secretary Richard Riley declared Proposition 227 “is not the way to go.” Aides to President Clinton said he may speak against the initiative on a visit to California.

The president is scheduled to come to the Bay Area on Friday for a fundraiser in Portola Valley and a weekend visit with his daughter, Chelsea, at Stanford University.

Polls show overwhelming support for the measure written by Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz. The measure mandates an “immersion” approach, requiring non-English speakers to spend their first year in special English courses before moving into regular classes.

Top Clinton education officials say they fear the California measure and congressional bids to cut bilingual funding could have adverse effects nationwide. The Unz initiative “will lead to fewer children learning English and many children falling further behind in their studies,” Riley said Monday. The administration is proposing a national time line that would limit most students to three years of bilingual instruction.

Wilson, who has had little to say about Proposition 227 until now, lashed out at Clinton, calling the administration’s involvement “a political gesture.”

“I frankly think he has no business, and I think the Department of Education has no business, substituting its judgment for that of the people of California,” Wilson said.

History of conflict

This isn’t the first time Wilson and Clinton have been at odds over high-profile California initiatives, most prominently over measures to limit benefits for illegal immigrants and to eliminate affirmative-action programs in public employment and education.

“I think (Clinton) may make it 0-for-3,” Wilson wryly noted at a midmorning news conference. “He opposed (Proposition) 187, it passed. He opposed 209, it passed. I suspect that when he opposes 227, it will pass.”

As to whether the governor would back the measure himself, “I’m strongly leaning that way,” Wilson told reporters. He expressed concerns regarding Proposition 227’s mandate that $50 million a year be budgeted for adult English learning. Wilson said he would weigh whether that spending outweighs the merits of children “becoming fluent in English as early as possible.”

Wilson pointed to Israel as an example of why immersion programs work.

“What they did is place all of these people in a Hebrew immersion school, and it didn’t much matter whether you are a 58-year-old tax lawyer from New York or a 5-year-old from Moscow,” Wilson noted. “The first thing that you had to do was to learn to speak, to read and write Hebrew in order to be a productive member of Israeli society.”

Undermining effort?

State GOP leaders openly worry that if they become too closely linked with the Unz initiative it could undermine their fledgling efforts to win over Latino voters who were alienated by the party’s backing of Propositions 187 and 209. Polls have shown that Latino voters shifted heavily into the Democratic column in response to GOP sponsorship of those ballot measures in the 1994 and 1996 elections.

Even though Wilson did not make a formal endorsement of Proposition 227, some Republican Latino leaders on Monday expressed dismay at the governor’s comments.

“The governor may want to have a wedge issue on the ballot,” said Ernesto Feliciano, state chairman for the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. “Our concern is that Pete Wilson not get behind 227 because it could instigate once again an anti-Hispanic, anti-Latino backlash” against Republicans.

Feliciano’s group and legislators from both parties support a bill now pending before the state Senate that would reform bilingual education by leaving decisions on how best to educate non-English speakers to local schools. Wilson has not taken a position on Senate Bill 6, which would become moot if Proposition 227 wins voter approval.

Latino support

Several Republican state leaders disputed the notion that Proposition 227 could become a wedge issue. Declaring that attracting Latino voters to Republican candidates “is my number one priority,” state GOP chairman Mike Schroeder referred to polling data that shows Proposition 227 enjoys strong support from Latinos. In a poll conducted in April by the Public Policy Institute of California, the measure was backed by 76 percent of all voters, and by 57 percent of Latino voters.

“One of the biggest concerns I had was this initiative would become polarized along racial and ethnic lines,” Schroeder said. “So far, that has not happened.”

Rather, GOP political director Mike Madrid sees the Unz initiative as a means of putting Republicans and Hispanics on the same side. “This may be the bridge we’re looking for to connect through to Latino voters,” he said.

But Clinton education leaders blasted the measure as a “one-size-fits-all” approach. The administration proposal would give local districts the decision-making power over bilingual education.

“The movement under way in California is not based in sound policy or research,” said Marshall Smith, the Education Department’s acting deputy secretary. “The best data that we have, the best research that we have suggests that the one-year immersion structure . . . is a major mistake.”

Smith also suggested that the measure might violate federal civil rights laws.

“Case law requires school districts to take steps to ensure that national-origin minority students with limited English proficiency must be able to effectively participate in the regular educational program offerings,” he said.

“The Unz initiative is a direct attack on local control of education,” Education Secretary Riley said.

The initiative does allow parents to seek waivers to place their children in bilingual classes under restricted conditions.

Wilson, who often calls for more local control, said Proposition 227’s statewide mandates were appropriate. “Local control is a splendid thing every now and again,” he said. But statewide standards are needed, he said, to enact a “benefit that really is so important but (has) been denied.”


Mercury News wire services contributed to this report.

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