ORANGE COUNTY—In a preview of what will likely be an emotional ballot issue in California next year, voters in Orange County resoundingly endorsed a school district decision to drop bilingual education.

Although the results from conservative Orange County do not necessarily translate statewide, the election showed how difficult the battle will be for bilingual supporters.

Tuesday’s advisory vote normally would have received scant attention outside the 29,000-student Orange Unified School District. But with opponents of bilingual programs circulating a state- wide ballot initiative, analysts viewed the Orange County vote as a preview of the battle expected in 1998.

The district measure was designed to gauge public support for the school board’s decision to end bilingual education in kindergarten through third grade. Eighty- six percent, or 14,354 voters, supported the board’s action, while 14 percent, or 2,249 voters, disapproved.

The outcome in this bedrock of conservatism was as predictable as the political spin that emerged yesterday from the competing camps.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley businessman who is sponsoring the state initiative, said the margin validated opinion polls showing broad public opposition to bilingual education. The main problem, he said, is that such programs put non-English-speaking students at a disadvantage.

“The election result makes it more difficult to claim that the polls are misleading,” Unz said. “The reason these programs continue to exist is because they have the support of some teachers and the bilingual apparatus that has a financial stake in them.”

But Thomas Saenz, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, cautioned against reading too much into the outcome. Latinos make up about 80 percent of the 1.3 million students who are designated “limited English proficient” in California.

“It doesn’t validate anything,” Saenz said, noting that the measure was not binding. “The sentiment for bilingual education remains strong among parents with kids in these programs.” Although many immigrants support ending bilingual education, some supporters claim the opposition is an extension of anti-immigrant sentiment they fear will spread to other states. Once predominantly white, Orange County has changed dramatically in recent years. Fifty- one percent of students in the Orange Unified School District are ethnic minorities, and 32 percent are Latino. Although an ethnic breakdown of the voting was not available, Superintendent Robert French said the measure received broad support in the district’s 67 precincts.

“The outcome is what we expected,” French said. “We’ve received many inquiries from school districts throughout the state seeking information.” State law requires schools to teach English to non-English speakers and to ensure that they are taught in their native language, if necessary. But the district has received approval for one year to replace bilingual education with an English-immersion program. Maria Quezada, president of the California Association For Bilingual Education, said she was disappointed by Tuesday’s election result but noted that only 19 percent of eligible voters in the district cast ballots. “We’re mounting a statewide voter education drive to get the truth out about bilingual education,” Quezada said. “The failure rate has been misrepresented, and it’s up to us show how many children have benefited.”

The statewide ballot initiative needs 433,269 valid signatures to qualify for next June’s ballot. Unz said he plans to turn in 700,000 signatures to the state within the next couple of weeks. “This issue has not reached most of the state electorate yet,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a Southern California political analyst. “Let’s just hope it doesn’t incite the rhetoric that Proposition 187 (which banned aid to illegal immigrants) did so that we can have a reasoned debate.”

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