In a vote with nationwide implications, California voters Tuesday approved Proposition 227, opting to all but end California’s 22-year experiment with bilingual education in public schools.
With 29 percent of the vote counted, the ballot measure to largely replace bilingual education with a statewide system of one year of English-immersion instruction was winning 65 percent to 35 percent.
Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who spent more than $500,000 of his own money to put the measure on the ballot, had predicted the measure would overcome high-profile opposition and a $2.7 million late television blitz by opponents.
“We were outspent by about 20-to-1 on advertising, but the people of California believed in what our initiative said,” a jubilant Unz said Tuesday night in Los Angeles. “And that is young children should be taught English as quickly as possible once they begin school. The people of California have won a big victory tonight, and California’s immigrants have won a gigantic victory.”
Holli Thier, spokeswoman for Citizens for an Educated America, the opposition campaign, said opponents are going to “keep working to make sure that these kids learn enough English to succeed academically. There was a lot of misinformation about kids, about the state of education and about how kids learn English.”
A court challenge to the initiative is widely expected.
“We obviously believe that this is very bad policy. . . . It’s such bad policy that we are clearly looking at legal steps, if necessary, to prevent it from taking effect,” said Thomas Saenz, an attorney in Los Angeles with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“Our concerns are that we don’t believe it provides the ability to give an educational opportunity to limited-English speakers.”
On Tuesday night, state schools chief Delaine Eastin issued a statement saying she plans to contact school districts “within the next few weeks with preliminary guidance” on how to help them comply with Proposition 227.
Among the elements to be reviewed, she said, are the measure’s relationship to existing federal law, procedures for parents seeking waivers to the English-immersion mandate and how much “native language instruction is allowable in any English-language immersion class.”
“It is imperative English learners receive the best education California has to offer,” Eastin added. “They need effective instruction to help them reach full proficiency in English quickly and to master academic content.”
The measure affects the estimated 1.4 million students who are classified as “limited-English proficient” and, barring legal obstacles, will take effect this fall.
>From the beginning, Unz’s measure, which he dubbed “English for the Children,” won broad support among voters in the polls. Surveys taken by the Field Poll from November through April showed support among voters overall consistently hovering around 70 percent.
And early on, Proposition 227 was getting a strong endorsement from Latino voters. For instance, a Field Poll in November showed two-thirds of Latino registered voters in support.
Throughout the campaign, Unz sought to cast the measure as one designed to help Latino immigrant children escape a “failed” system of bilingual education — an effort for which he had Latino support.
He got a major boost in that regard in October when famed Latino mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante, whose achievements with public high schoolers in East Los Angeles were depicted in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” signed on as Unz’s honorary campaign chairman.
More than a month passed between the time Unz announced Escalante’s support and the opposition campaign held its kickoff news conference in Sacramento, prompting one observer to say the “silence of the bilingual education establishment has been deafening.”
By last week, when the Field Poll released its latest survey, support for Proposition 227 had fallen to 61 percent; support among likely Latino voters also had slipped, to 52 percent.
In the last weeks of the campaign, opponents did receive two big boosts that they used to get out their message.
First, the opposition received a whopping $1.5 million contribution from A. Jerrold Perenchio, chairman of Univision Communications Inc., the Los Angeles-based Spanish-language television network.
Second, state Attorney General Dan Lungren, the presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee, disclosed during the Los Angeles gubernatorial debate that he was against the measure.
With Perenchio’s money, opponents were able to launch a late television blitz with an ad that featured Lungren and all three of his Democratic rivals — businessman Al Checchi, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Rep. Jane Harman — saying they would vote no on Proposition 227. The Clinton administration also came out against the measure.
But the eleventh-hour television campaign failed to overcome the substantial deficit.
Jim Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington, D.C., predicted that advocates of “English only” would “seize upon” the vote and “and try to move their agenda nationally.”
“But it’s pretty clear to me California is on its own,” Lyons contended. “Most of the country is not really looking for the divisive or simplistic and thoughtless approach that California voters sometimes endorse.”