When “English for the Children” first surfaced, this proposed ballot initiative against bilingual education looked like the logical political descendant of California’s recent campaigns against undocumented immigrants and affirmative action. Bilingual education would be the latest target for the state’s disproportionately large and cranky Anglo electorate. Presumably, much of the white electorate, led by conservatives and anti-immigrant activists, would line up to support the initiative, while liberals and Latinos would amass forces on the other side.
But so far, an entirely different political dynamic has emerged, according to political consultants and senior officials from both major parties. Neither the Latino political leadership nor that of the state Republican Party wants anything to do with this initiative. Many Republicans are reluctant to be identified with an issue that could expose them to further charges of being immigrant bashers or anti-Latino. The Latino political establishment, on the other hand, is reluctant to defend bilingual education, a program whose success many privately question. Nor do some want to condemn openly an initiative sponsored by Ron Unz, one of the rare Republicans who have stood strong with immigrants in the past.
The proposed initiative, which proponents hope to place on the June 1998 primary ballot, would require limited-English-speaking students to be taught in English unless their parents request otherwise. English learners would then have no more than one year of “sheltered English” instruction—where teachers use simple, accessible language—before being moved into a regular classroom. The ballot proposition also calls for adding $50 million a year for 10 years to pay for more adult English-literacy classes.
Plainly, this initiative has a born constituency among the conservative supporters of propositions 187 and 209. As for Latinos, initial public opinion polls are not necessarily adverse. A Los Angeles Times poll of Latinos in Orange County indicated that a majority of immigrant parents support English immersion. Behind the scenes, initiative sponsor Unz is engineering a statewide poll that he hopes will yield similar results.
Yet despite the initiative’s broad potential voter base, the state GOP is so far keeping its distance. Although Republicans made a tremendous run on the back of Proposition 187, they tripped on the short coattails of Proposition 209, and some leaders question the political benefit of what could become the third racially divisive initiative in as many election years. The party is still reeling from the punishment delivered by Latino voters in last November’s general elections.
State Republican Party chairman Michael Schroeder, for one, has publicly distanced the party from the initiative. “The Democrats will certainly run out there and say this is just another example of [Republican] Hispanic bashing,” Schroeder said in a June interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s not true. It’s not a party-sponsored initiative.” Speaking with the Weekly, Schroeder was more circumspect. He said he has”instructed Hispanic groups within the GOP to study the matter and come back with a recommendation.”
This is a notably cautious response from a politico not known to shrink from two-fisted partisan politics: Schroeder is Bob Dornan’s personal lawyer in his battle to invalidate the narrow electoral victory of Loretta Sanchez in a working- and middle-class Orange County congressional district. His lukewarm disposition toward the Unz initiative may derive in part from the funds Unz would mandate for immigrants’ English-literacy classes. These funds could support exactly the sort of pro-immigrant, community-based organizations that Dornan and Schroeder are charging with electoral fraud in Orange County. Along the same lines, anti-immigrant activists would be hard-pressed to back any initiative that increases state spending on immigrants, a point underscored by the blistering e-mails Unz has received that label him a “traitor” and worse.
For their part, Latino politicians are unwilling to dedicate money and political capital to a campaign against a measure that may prove popular with their constituents, including immigrant parents. In fact, defending bilingual education is not even among the top five cutting-edge issues facing Latinos, according to a recent survey of the city’s Latino leadership by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. Political scientist Fernando Guerra, who conducted the as-yet-unreleased survey, said the issue has been declining in importance on the Latino political agenda.
And unquestioning support for bilingual education also has eroded in other areas of traditional support. A referendum that would have undermined the policy of bonus pay for teachers with bilingual training received surprisingly strong support in June among the membership of United Teachers-Los Angeles (UTLA). Even though the mass of UTLA’s executive leadership urged a vote against the referendum, some 43 percent supported it anyway. The measure would have directed the union”to use all personnel and resources necessary to eliminate all state-mandated bilingual requirements for teacher credentials, teacher certificates, and for teacher in-service training.”
In the Legislature, state Senator Richard Polanco, the chair of the state Latino Legislative Caucus, reportedly has no plans to mount an organized challenge to the initiative. Another key player, state Assembly Majority Leader Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), by contrast, has said he would strongly oppose the initiative, calling it a vehicle to bring out Republican voters. “I think the Unz initiative is the third installment in the Republican trilogy of polarizing initiatives,” said Villaraigosa in a recent interview. “We will fight it.”
But other than such rhetoric, there are no signs that he or any other elected officials will marshal opposing forces. Thus far, the California Association of Bilingual Educators has reportedly tried without success to get the Latino political leadership to put its weight behind an opposition campaign.
The political no man’s land into which this initiative has descended is strangely reflective of its sponsor, iconoclast Ron Unz, the physicist-cum-software-designer millionaire who impertinently challenged Governor Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary.
Unz, who describes himself as both a Ronald Reagan Republican and a libertarian conservative, does not include immigrant bashing in his portfolio. To the contrary, he recently compared the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR), the nation’s most prominent conservative immigration-reform group, to the 1920s Ku Klux Klan. And while Wilson was riding the anti-immigrant wave of Proposition 187 to an electoral landslide, Unz had the audacity to appear as a featured speaker at a 70,000-person-strong pro-immigrant rally in October 1994. Unz repeatedly predicted that 187, if enacted, would be the worst moral disaster in California since the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Unz also claims to have persuaded prominent national Republicans William Bennett and Jack Kemp to publicly oppose 187.
One year later, he derisively referred to Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein as”Big Sister” after she proposed a national identity card.
Such pro-immigrant bona fides have so far inoculated Unz from any serious charge of Latino bashing by liberals since the initiative was officially announced in May. Unz opted for a voter initiative, he said in an interview, because he has neither the patience nor the time to pursue the”slow” route. In recent sessions proposed reform of bilingual education has gridlocked at the hands of competing special interests.
In pushing his initiative, Unz seems more interested in getting Latino Democratic support for his measure than in courting his own party. Unz has chosen a Latina bilingual teacher to be his co-chair on the initiative, and only last week received an endorsement from a prominent Bay Area Latino Democratic politico. “It’s important to keep this as a stand-alone issue,” said Unz. “I want this to be a bipartisan initiative.” Ultimately, some activists may hold their peace because their organizations could receive portions of the $50 million allotment for adult language instruction.
In the meantime, Bok Pon, the Chinese-born vice chairman of the state GOP in Northern California, is among those lobbying party leader Schroeder to let Republican delegates decide whether to support the initiative at their next convention in September. “A majority of delegates will support the measure,” Pon predicted in an interview. If the initiative fails to qualify for the ballot prior to this gathering, the issue may be tabled until the party’s next convention in February.
The flaccid reaction to date on both sides of the aisle doesn’t ensure that the ballot measure won’t become divisive. By nature, voter initiatives are the electoral process least amenable to political compromise. “English for the Children” could still become the instrument by which an overwhelmingly Anglo electorate asserts its displeasure with the state’s Latino-bound demographic metamorphosis.
Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum foresees politicization from the other side. “I’m sure there are plenty of left-wing Latinos who would love to turn this into a racial issue,” he said. Indeed, it wouldn’t take much for wary Latino voters—no matter how they feel about bilingual education—to feel browbeaten if the initiative’s campaign takes on even the slightest racial tinge.