Californians are ready to accommodate new immigrants in many ways, they seem to draw the line when it comes to speaking English,” said poll director Mark DiCamillo. “People think, especially when it comes to education in the schools, English is how people are going to get ahead in society.”
DiCamillo likened the results to the strong early support for Proposition 63, a successful 1986 measure to declare English as the official language in California. But he cautioned that early polls on ballot measures are “concept tests” that are subject to wide variations as campaigns get under way.
The proposal to overhaul the state’s bilingual education program, which has been in place for more than 20 years, has not yet qualified for the June 1998 ballot. But supporters last month turned in about 780,000 voter signatures — nearly twice as many as the 433,269 valid signatures needed to qualify the measure. Official word on whether it qualified is expected by next month.
The measure, pushed by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, promotes English-only instruction for California’s 1.3 million students with limited English skills. It would replace the current system of bilingual education with a one-year crash course in which those students are taught using an “English immersion” method.
Parents who want to keep their children in bilingual education programs could attempt to do so by seeking a waiver. Such waivers could be granted by local school officials if certain requirements were met, according to the initiative, such as when the child already possessed strong English language skills.
Some Latino political leaders have criticized the proposal, saying that the waiver provisions are uncertain and that students who don’t become fluent in English after the immersion program will be left foundering.
Yet proponents said they are encouraged that the measure is receiving strong support among Latino voters.
“It’s really important to maintain strong support from those who are affected by the program,” said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for English for Children, which is campaigning for the measure.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a spokeswoman for opponents of the initiative, said support for the measure seems to be declining based on even higher rates of support found in a Los Angeles Times Poll conducted in early October.
“The more people learn of the initiative, the more they are opposed to it,” she said. “It shows we’re making progress and getting (our) message out.”
Annis attributed the decline in the support figures to differences in the way the questions were posed.
The Field Poll found that 55 percent of voters said they favored having decisions about bilingual education made by local school boards, compared with 40 percent who said they favored statewide decisions.
Opponents of the measure say they intend to highlight the loss of local control under the initiative’s guidelines.
The poll also found wide ranges of estimates when respondents were asked how long it should take to teach English to non-English-speaking children — with the median estimate being two years.
Annis said she was encouraged that 25 percent of respondents think English can be taught in one year, as contemplated by the measure, compared with 7 percent who believe it should take at least five years — the length of current bilingual education programs.
“People tend to want things to happen in a quicker fashion so students are not segregated for long periods of time,” Annis said.
But Hayes-Raitt noted that 59 percent of respondents estimated it should take more than one year to teach English to non-English-speaking kids. “The poll shows the Unz measure is too extreme for most Californians,” she said.