State's Bilingual Decision Muddies Prop. 227 Debate

Initiative contradicts new state policy

The state Board of Education’s decision to let school districts teach immigrant children only in English is expected to profoundly change the debate over Proposition 227, a June ballot measure that would ban bilingual instruction altogether. Until the board’s decision Thursday, the bilingual controversy centered on how best to teach children who speak little English. Now, with the state’s 1,000 school districts allowed to make their own bilingual education choices, the debate moves into the contentious realm of local versus state control. The earlier focus was crystal clear for voters, who have overwhelmingly backed the measure in polls. But with that issue deflated, the big question for both sides is whether public support for Proposition 227 will start to erode.

Backers of the initiative — while hailing the board for coming down on the side of local control — will be forced into the uncomfortable position of campaigning for something that wipes away that local autonomy. “I’m very glad the board took the action it did,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who wrote Proposition 227, which would ban bilingual education. “I’m not necessarily saying the initiative is (consistent with) local control — but it is overwhelmingly popular.” The board’s decision reversed years of policy requiring school districts to get a waiver from the state if they wanted to teach only in English and not offer bilingual education. Only five districts, all in Southern California, exercised this option.

Now, the board will let all districts decide whether to offer bilingual classes to the state’s 1.4 million immigrant children.

The move came days after a Sacramento County Superior Court ruling that outlawed the waiver requirement on the grounds that every district had to “provide academic instruction using the primary language when necessary.”

Bilingual supporters praised the judge’s ruling, saying it would ensure that districts offer primary language instruction to immigrant children.

But the Board of Education had a different interpretation: seizing on the term “when necessary,” the panel said districts could decide the matter for themselves.


And, with that move, the board created a contradiction for voters in June. Polls show Californians overwhelmingly support Proposition 227 — and at the same time strongly support local control.

“The board’s decision puts the opponents of bilingual education into a very hypocritical position,” said Bruce Fuller, director of Policy Analysis for California Education, which co-sponsored a recent statewide Field Poll.

“On the one hand, we have Ron Unz saying there should be one size fits all, eliminating local control so that every teacher in the state has to speak English to the children. “But (Governor) Pete Wilson’s conservative state board has taken the exact opposite stance, almost unknowingly countering the state mandate that would be required by Proposition 227.”

How this seeming contradiction will affect the fate of Proposition 227 is still unclear, as voters are still sorting out the details of the fast-changing public discussion.

Mervin Field, director of the Field Poll, said the board’s move will “heighten the debate” — but make it no easier for voters to sort through the increasingly complex issue.

“Some people might think the board’s decision takes care of the matter, and others might be incensed by it,” the pollster said.

“But if both sides are getting comfort from it, then that’s going to confuse the public even more.”


Field noted that while a recent poll showed 67 percent of voters support Proposition 227, support from Latinos has declined from a majority in favor to a break-even position: 46 percent for it, and 45 percent opposed.

Bilingual education supporters, such as the influential California Teachers Association, hope that voters who lean toward the English-only initiative will instead prefer to retain the local-choice policy now in place because of the state board’s decision. Proposition 227 would supersede the new policy if it prevailed at the polls and would become part of the state Education Code.

“It’s always been a strange twist about Proposition 227, that its supporters would give the state control over curriculum issues at the local level,” said Tommye Hutto, spokeswoman for the state’s largest teachers union. “They are two inconsistent positions. We certainly hope the voters notice this.”

Sherri Annis, spokeswoman for the Proposition 227 campaign, agreed that an inconsistency exists between the traditional conservative endorsement of local control and the initiative’s mandate.

“Local control in theory sounds good,” Annis said, “but in practice, in this situation, local control won’t change anything. When there are entrenched bureaucracies, local control still means lack of control.”

Annis did not deny that English-only supporters blow with the wind on local control.

“I admit that people are inconsistent,” she said. “But people are pragmatic and want to see their side win.”

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