LOS ANGELES — Californians expelled bilingual education from the classroom Tuesday, passing a measure requiring that all children be schooled in English.
With 2 percent of precincts reporting in early unofficial returns, Proposition 227 was leading 70 percent to 30 percent, 494,105 votes to 212,752.
Proposition 227, known as English for the Children, is the brainchild of Ron Unz, a software millionaire who challenged Gov. Pete Wilson for the GOP nomination in 1994.
It essentially eliminates bilingual education by requiring that children who can’t speak English be put in immersion programs taught overwhelmingly in English for no more than a year.
Parents could request that their children get bilingual instruction, but only under limited conditions.
The measure includes $50 million a year for 10 years to pay for tutoring. It allows parents to file suit if teachers flout the statute.
Proponents said the experiences of earlier generations show children can pick up English quickly. They argued that the current system condemns children to a linguistic limbo where they fall behind their English-schooled peers.
Opponents admitted there are problems in bilingual education. But they said the sink-or-swim Unz solution would push a vulnerable population into dangerous waters.
More than 50 languages are spoken on California schoolyards and the state offers instruction in 20 of them. Eighty percent of limited-English children are Spanish speakers, turning the debate into a largely Latino issue.
Some traced Proposition 227’s lineage to the 1996 battle over affirmative action (Proposition 209) and the 1994 fight over cutting state services to illegal immigrants (Proposition 187).
But Unz, the grandson of Eastern European immigrants, denied he was playing racial politics, pointing out his credentials as a staunch opponent of Proposition 187.
As with propositions 187 and 209, legal challenges to Proposition 227 were expected.
Hispanic civil rights groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles planned news conferences Wednesday.
Unz began crusading against bilingual education after reading about Hispanic parents who were boycotting Los Angeles schools for insisting on teaching their children in Spanish.
In California, about 1.4 million of the state’s 5 million public students have limited English proficiency. Of those, about 30 percent are in programs where they receive most of their instruction in their primary language. Due to a teacher shortage, the rest may get anything from no help at all to courses designed for limited-English speakers to having a teacher’s aide in the classroom who can translate as needed.
Last year, the state reported that just under 7 percent of children in bilingual education were reclassified as speaking English.
Unz, who says the annual figure averages 5 percent, called that a 95-percent failure rate.
But opponents noted that only 30 percent of those students actually are getting instruction in their primary language.
As the proposition soared in the polls, legislators broke a gridlock and passed a bill that would have allowed districts to tailor their own programs provided they produced results within three years.
Wilson vetoed that bill as too little, too late. He then endorsed Proposition 227 — to the dismay of Unz, who worried Wilson’s championship of Proposition 187 would put off Latino voters.
Also backing Proposition 227 was the State Republican Party (over the objections of party leaders) and Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles school teacher whose innovative methods were the subject of the movie "Stand and Deliver."
Opponents included the California Teachers Association, President Bill Clinton, and all four candidates for governor.