Latinos divided on bilingual education

Poll detects shift in voter's sympathies

Fernando Vega is a stalwart Democrat from the San Francisco Peninsula, a 74-year-old community activist who served as chairman of Latino outreach for the 1992 Clinton-Gore presidential campaign in San Mateo County.

Assemblyman Rod Pacheco, a 39-year-old prosecutor from Riverside with the distinction of being the Legislature’s sole Latino Republican, often proudly proclaims his membership in the Party of Lincoln.

But when it comes to Proposition 227, the June ballot measure that would largely eliminate bilingual education in California public schools, Vega and Pacheco hold views at odds with their respective party activists.

Vega is an ardent backer of the measure; Pacheco is wholeheartedly against it.

Their opposing points of view illustrate the divided opinion now emerging among Latino voters over the English-immersion mandate proposed by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz.

Unz early on picked up high-profile Latino support for his self-titled “English for the Children” initiative, including the endorsement of famed Latino teacher Jaime Escalante.

Indeed, Newsweek published a piece in late November headlined, “Is it hasta la vista for bilingual ed? With Latino support, California seems poised to kill the controversial approach.”

But the conventional wisdom that Latinos strongly support the Unz measure no longer holds, according to Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo, whose latest survey last month showed Latino opinion now sharply split, with 46 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed.

While voters overall continue to support Proposition 227 by a wide margin, there has been a 20 percent drop in Latino support since December, when 66 percent of Latinos said they supported the initiative.

What’s going on?

More news coverage about what the measure actually proposes, for one, DiCamillo said, adding that Latinos are the only group in the California electorate showing “any meaningful statistical movement at all.”

“It looks like it’s a divisive issue among Latinos,” he said.

Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for the Unz campaign, noted that the Field Poll’s latest measure of Latino voter sentiment was based on a relatively small sample size. She argued that a larger one would produce “a better sense of where Latinos truly stand on this issue.”

DiCamillo defended the poll as statistically valid.

Guillermo Rodriguez, executive director of the Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco, said some early polls asked questions that elicited general responses about whether Latinos want their children to learn English. His group released a poll last month showing that Latino support for the Unz measure varied greatly, depending on the wording of the questions.

“Of course, Latino parents want their children to learn English,” Rodriguez said. “That’s not the question. But when asked if they want to do away with bilingual education, Latino parents are saying no.”

Count Sacramentan Joe Ramos, a Vietnam War veteran and the father of a second-grade daughter and a kindergarten son, among those parents.

Standing outside a bilingual education classroom at Woodbine Elementary School in south Sacramento one day recently, Ramos, 47, said he joined a grass-roots campaign against the Unz measure after being invited to a presentation at the school cafeteria. He said teachers should have the flexibility to use a student’s native language when necessary.

Sporting a black cowboy hat and a thick mustache, Ramos related his experience in Vietnam to the battle over the Unz initiative.

“All these people . . . went out and died for this country — and I saw a lot of partners go down — to have the freedom to choose what you want for your kids,” Ramos said. “It’s supposed to be the land of the free, and all of a sudden, it’s not going to be that way.”

Pacheco said the issue of parental choice and local control is central to the debate over the Unz initiative, and is one of the key reasons he’s opposed to it.

Saying that existing bilingual education programs are in need of major reform, Pacheco nonetheless argued that Unz’s English-immersion proposal would be yet another state mandate, which runs counter to “Republican philosophy.”

And the measure’s provision providing $500 million over 10 years for adult English literacy programs is a dubious taxpayer expenditure, he said. Pacheco also said the measure would allow the possibility of “frivolous lawsuits” against teachers, administrators and others.

“Some folks are going to say — and I don’t blame them — that a flawed cure is better than no cure at all, and I disagree with that,” the lawmaker said. With Latino support for the measure “dropping like a rock” in the polls, Pacheco also said he is concerned that there might be a backlash against GOP candidates who back a measure that “looks targeted” at Latinos.

But for Vega, a retired airline mechanic, bilingual education is “a program that has failed tremendously,” and the Unz initiative is just the jolt the system needs. He has joined the Unz campaign as honorary chairman in the Peninsula.

Vega said that several years ago, as a local school board member, he helped to bring bilingual education to San Mateo County to “help kids overcome language barriers” in the early grades.

As time went by, he said, more children were being placed in the program, but were not being eased into English-only classes. Vega said his own grandson had been enrolled in a first-grade bilingual education class without his parents’ knowledge.

“Now we are segregating our students. . . . We are segregated and unequal,” Vega declared. He rejected arguments that the Unz measure would deny parental choice, saying, “We don’t have local control right now.”

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