Since 'English-only' initiative passed, little has changed

But impact may be felt in debate on bilingual education

SACRAMENTO, CA—Despite opponents’ fears that Proposition 63 would deprive millions of their civil rights, little has changed since voters overwhelmingly deemed English the state’s “official language” eight months ago.

About 2 million residents still speak languages other than English when taking driver’s-license tests and conducting other government business. Foreign street signs still mark corners in many ethnic neighborhoods. Health officers still issue warnings about toxic wastes, tainted foods and poisonous pesticides in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and other languages.

Critics of the official-language initiative, approved by 73 percent of the voters in November, admit they incorrectly foresaw increases in racial divisiveness and xenophobia resulting from Prop. 63.

“I haven’t seen a whole lot of change,” said Ron Wakabayashi, national director of the Japanese American Citizens League. “I think the measure passed largely on a ‘Why not?’ basis, like making the poppy the official flower.”

Stanley Diamond, the leader of the successful “English-only” drive, concedes his initiative’s effect “has been minimal so far.” But he predicts that Prop. 63’s impact will begin being felt this week during a scheduled state Senate debate on the future of California’s bilingual-education program.

The legislators will be grappling with a bill authored by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, D-San Francisco, that revives bilingual teaching for five more years.

Diamond, a founding director of an organization called U.S. English that hopes to take Prop. 63 nationwide, maintains that bilingual education has failed. He says the state’s 10-year-old program of teaching Hispanic and other immigrant children in both their native language and English is not helping them gain skills needed to succeed in America.

Diamond wants those students, predominantly Spanish speakers, to be cycled into all-English courses.

Bilingual educators insist that their federally mandated programs are effective in keeping children from falling behind in academic studies during the four to six years it takes to become fluent in English.

But advocates of bilingual education are at a disadvantage in the upcoming legislative battle because U.S. English has enlisted a powerful ally, Gov. George Deukmejian.

Deukmejian, who vetoed a crucial 1986 bilingual bill, has vowed to sign no new measure that does not overhaul current bilingual curricula.

As a result of the veto, on June 30 the state lost authority to tell local school districts how to run their bilingual programs. The districts, which continue to receive full state and federal funding, are now free to decide how to teach immigrant or so-called “limited-English-proficiency” students as they see fit.

Prop. 63 advocates, who consider the expiration in June of the bilingual law a major victory, say passage of the initiative gave them the upper hand in negotiations with Brown. The speaker’s bill would restore state control over bilingual education and fill the gap created by the governor’s veto.

“We feel we’ve had a tremendous victory,” said Assemblyman Frank Hill, R-Whittier, Prop. 63’s point man in the Legislature. “We’re focusing all our efforts on bilingual education.”

Hill and Diamond do not want to eliminate totally all use of foreign languages in teaching students with limited English ability. They admit that some native speech may be needed to make immigrant children comfortable in the classroom, but they contend that such dependence should be kept to a minimum.

“We object very strongly to the Spanish-speaking child starting school and hearing only Spanish for two, four, six hours a day for five years. That’s utter nonsense and a total disservice to the child,” Diamond said.

As an alternative, Diamond and Hill support teaching approaches that concentrate on making students fluent in English in as little as one year. Consequently, they’ve used their political muscle to convince Brown to amend his bill and give local school districts more latitude to experiment in other teaching techniques.

Brown’s bill also was changed to require parental approval before children are placed in bilingual classes. And a provision was dropped that would continue a requirement that all bilingual teachers sign waivers promising that they will learn Spanish or other languages in order to keep their positions. Some teachers teach bilingual classes with the help of aides who speak the second language.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if it hadn’t been for Prop. 63, we would not be victorious in bilingual education,” Hill said. “It’s dramatically changed the political environment up here.”

Hill now plans to introduce bills to reduce the level of state services provided in Spanish, Chinese and other languages.

“The next battle will be over the whole focus of how you provide materials other than English all throughout state government,” he said.

Under current law, all state agencies directly serving the public must provide bilingual services when at least 5 percent of their clients do not speak English. The state employs more than 3,000 bilingual workers in major bureaucracies, including those dealing with justice, law enforcement, prisons, health, welfare, employment, motor vehicles and consumer affairs.

Hill emphasizes that advocates of Prop. 63 do not want to limit bilingual services in key areas of public health, safety and justice.

He said foreign-language court translators, 911 emergency police dispatchers and health-clinic workers would be exempted from any proposed reductions in bilingual services.

However, Hill wants to review areas such as driver’s-license testing, park campsite reservations and university scholarship applications.

He said he hopes his conservative, go-slow approach toward legislative implementation of Prop. 63 has put to rest opponents’ concerns about the official-language initiative.

“I think we’ve debunked the myth that said that somehow this is divisive,” he said.

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