President Clinton will campaign in California against Proposition 227, administration officials announced Monday, launching the strongest attack yet on the initiative that would all but do away with bilingual education.
Gov. Pete Wilson, meanwhile, said he is “strongly leaning” toward supporting the initiative and predicted that California voters will repudiate Clinton’s views.
“I think bilingual education is one of the great misfired good intentions of our time,” Wilson said in Sacramento. “It is an effort to try to bring people along in their own language. I think it has failed.”
About 1.4 million California students are in bilingual classes.
Delivering the Clinton administration’s platform, Deputy Education Secretary Marshall Smith called the initiative a “one-size-fits-all approach” that ignores children’s individual needs and threatens local control of schools. The administration proposes a goal of moving students with limited English skills from bilingual programs into English-taught classes in three years or less.
While Proposition 227’s wording seems to pass legal muster, its implementation may not, Smith said. The federal government might sue California, he said, if lawyers for the U.S. Department of Education decide that the initiative, if it passes, violates students’ civil rights.
With little more than a month until the June 2 election, polls show voters strongly in favor of Proposition 227. Its backers on Monday dismissed the effect of the Clinton administration’s opposition and questioned the president’s political motives.
“I’m really very disappointed,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley executive backing the measure. “Even supporters of bilingual education admit the system is failing.”
Unz criticized the administration’s three-year goal for English-only learning as an arbitrary figure that “doesn’t make any sense” and said he is confident Proposition 227 would stand up to court challenges. Clinton’s opposition “is entirely a question of political pressure” from the bilingual education lobby, Unz said.
Monday’s announcement came as the administration began planning its strategy for next year’s congressional hearings on reauthorizing the federal bilingual education act. The administration’s proposal, Smith said, could include new rules to move limited-English students more quickly into classes taught in English.
The Unz initiative goes too far, U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley said in a statement, because it “ignores the individual needs of each child and certainly is an education straitjacket for teachers and parents.”
“A goal is not a mandate or a command,” Riley said. “Some children may learn English in one year or two, and others may need three years or even more.”
Opposition to the initiative, Smith said, will go beyond Monday’s news conference. “I believe you’ll see lots of administration officials in the state over the next month,” he said.
President Clinton will be in California this weekend to visit his daughter, Chelsea, and attend fund-raisers in San Francisco and Los Angeles. White House spokesman Mike McCurry indicated that Clinton will speak out against Proposition 227 during the trip.
“It’s rare for the president to take a position on a state ballot measure, but California, being the largest state, tends to be a trend-setter,” McCurry said.
In 1994 and 1996, Clinton came out against Propositions 187 and 209 — initiatives that, respectively, aimed to deny benefits to illegal immigrants and end public affirmative action programs. Both propositions passed by wide margins.
“I think he may make it O-for-3 in a reverse hat trick,” Wilson said. “He opposed 187. It passed. He opposed 209. It passed. And I suspect that when he opposes 227, it will pass.”
Wilson said Clinton “has no business and, I think, the U.S. Department of Education has no business substituting its judgment for that of the people of California. I really do not think that we need the assistance of either bureaucrats or elected officials from inside the Beltway to tell Californians how to vote.”
Wilson has yet to announce a position on the initiative or a legislative alternative now making its way toward his desk. But he said Monday that he is inclined to agree with the Latino parents who have said “they wanted their children schooled in English just as early as possible.”
Proposition 227’s foes applauded Clinton’s joining their cause. “It will put voters’ antennae up, that this is something they might want to pay attention to,” said Richie Ross, the Sacramento consultant for Citizens for an Educated America, leading the fight against the measure.
Neither side of the debate has taken its campaign to the airwaves. “We don’t have a lot of money, and neither does the other side,” said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for the Unz campaign.
Leo Rennert of The Bee Washington Bureau contributed to this report.