Popular initiatives in California have a history of starting national movements. Proposition 13 in 1978 launched a national tax revolt. Proposition 187 in 1994 sparked a wave of legislation against illegal immigration.
By comparison, Proposition 227’s effect is modest ? but it’s still palpable in Congress, statehouses and school districts around the nation.
Backed by 61 percent of California voters in June 1998, Prop. 227 requires that almost all of California’s 1.4 million limited-English students be taught in English, ending a 25-year experiment with bilingual education.
In May, Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., introduced the Parents Know Best Act, which would require permission of parents before their children are enrolled in a federally funded bilingual-education program. Current federal law allows parents to withdraw their children from bilingual programs but does not require consent before students are placed in those classes.
The most organized campaign is taking place in Arizona, where activists are gathering signatures to place an initiative with nearly identical wording to 227 on the November 2000 ballot.
“If California could do it, then I think Arizona can, too,” said Maria Mendoza of Tucson, campaign chairwoman of English for the Children of Arizona and an opponent of bilingual education for 30 years.
The release of California test scores in July, which showed improvements among limited-English students, added momentum to the Arizona cause, Mendoza said.
“The California test scores mean a big boost for our campaign, because the argument of our opponents was that we didn’t have any statistics,” she said. “Now we do.”
Gloria Matta Tuchman, the Santa Ana teacher who co-led the pro-227 campaign, said repercussions will grow if California’s test scores continue to rise in coming years, as she expects.
“This is just the beginning,” she said. “It’s one state at a time.”
But not all changes in bilingual programs are following California’s lead.
The school board in Houston, the nation’s fifth-largest school district, approved a new policy in July that encourages multilingual education, a response to the area’s growing Hispanic population and demand from businesses for bilingual workers.
“Proposition 227 calls for English only. We called for proficiency in at least two languages,” said Gabriel Vasquez, a Houston school board member who sponsored the new policy. “City leaders in Houston embraced diversity as a positive thing.”
Still, the political clout of 227 has helped spur bilingual-education advocates to reassess their unwavering opposition to English immersion. The National Association of Bilingual Education installed new leadership in July that has officially acknowledged the merits of different methods of teaching English, given the scarcity of resources and teachers in some areas of the country.
“I don’t want to say we’re backing away from supporting bilingual programs,” said NABE spokesman Jaime Zapata. “We’re saying the responsible thing is to address the needs of children taking into account the situation in a community.”
Tuchman is using her name recognition as a backer of the initiative to help her political career. She is running for the Republican nomination to oppose Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Santa Ana, next year.
“It’s definitely not a detriment ? 227 got about 58 percent of the vote in that district,” Tuchman said.
Ron Unz, who bankrolled most of the pro-227 campaign, is circulating petitions for a new initiative on the March 2000 California ballot, this one to reform campaign spending.
The tactics of anti-227 forces ? who outspent Unz by about 20-to-1 ? aroused his interest in the topic. Among other things, Unz’s Voters Rights 2000 initiative includes a ban on corporate donations to candidates, requires overnight Internet-based disclosure of contributions, and caps donations at $5,000 for statewide races and $3,000 for local races.
Like English for the Children, the campaign-finance initiative addresses a popular theme that politicians have been unable ? or unwilling ? to tackle. Also like 227, the initiative has been carefully written by Unz to withstand the type of court challenges that struck down recent campaign-reform initiatives.
Shirley Grindle, an Orange County campaign-finance reform activist, opposes the new proposition because, she said, the $3,000 local contribution cap is too high. “But I don’t fault Mr. Unz for having an initiative that 99 percent of the voters won’t read and that probably will pass.”