As California approaches the 21st century, it is being reshaped by powerful economic and social forces that simultaneously create political issues and alter the atmosphere in which those issues are addressed.

It’s a California paradox: The mere existence of an issue is strong evidence that the conditions exist to block its resolution and thus guarantee that it will continue to seethe for years or even decades.

Currently, nothing encapsulates the syndrome more fully than the burgeoning debate over bilingual education, which will climax in a bitter ballot measure battle next year, but whose outcome, whatever it is, will merely fuel further acrimony.

About 1.5 million of California’s 5.5 million public school students have limited — and sometimes no — English-speaking ability and less than a third receive instruction in their native languages.

That condition stems directly from California’s status as the destination of choice for economic and political refugees and the high birthrate among immigrant groups. Well over 100 separate languages are spoken in the state’s schools.

For their own sake, to create social cohesion and to deal with the demands of a surging and fast-growing economy, California must do whatever it can to raise English proficiency among these children. But despite lip-service consensus on that point, there is sharp, often bitter, disagreement on how the goal is to be achieved.

The state’s educational establishment and Latino political leaders back the bilingual approach — instruction in non-English languages to, they say, keep children advancing educationally while introducing English. But critics say that approach has failed miserably, that English is not being incorporated quickly enough and many children, especially Latinos, are being educationally impoverished.

It is a classic California political confrontation. There’s an obvious problem with the status quo but the Legislature, besieged by the competing interest groups, has been paralyzed, thus encouraging those involved to shift their focus to a ballot measure. Such legislative paralysis lies at the root of California’s deluge of ballot measure battles, beginning with Proposition 13 in 1978.

In this case, the Legislature has debated the merits and demerits of bilingual education for years but has refused to enact any substantive changes in the status quo, largely because of pressure from Latino groups and teacher organizations, especially those representing the bilingual teachers who receive premium pay.

Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz took matters into his own hands by sponsoring a ballot measure that would, in effect, eliminate bilingual education and substitute “immersion” to compel children into English usage. It’s now headed for the June primary ballot. But even with the ballot measure looming, bilingual education advocates blocked a bipartisan reform scheme in the Legislature this year.

Polls, including a new Field Poll released within the last week, indicate that a huge majority of voters support the Unz measure — and that support is as strong among Latino voters as any other group. The opponents, nevertheless, are plotting a campaign that will attack the Unz measure as “extremist.”

If Unz wins, and chances are it will, the measure will be depicted as a racist assault on non-Anglos and court battles will almost certainly ensue. If the measure loses, the status quo will have been preserved but the criticism of bilingual education, that it dooms whole generations of children to permanent second-class status, will continue.

This is a battle among adults over cultural power and the interests of children are secondary.

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