SAN FRANCISCO–Ron Unz thinks he’s discovered a secret of modern political success: Get both Democrats and Republicans to oppose what you’re doing.

“It’s working very well,” quips the software entrepreneur turned political innovator, referring to his campaign to rescue California’s children from the false promise of bilingual education.

Democrats oppose his statewide referendum, Proposition 227, set for June 2 because they’re in the tank for educrats and Latino politicians. Big-shot Republicans are afraid they’ll be branded anti-Latino. Mr. Unz’s only allies are the voters, who still matter, at least once in a while.

It’s fashionable to moan that voter referendums, term limits and other populist reforms have ruined politics. They’re said to have stolen issues and flexibility away from politicians, who supposedly know what they’re doing. But the Unz effort is proving once again that referendums are also useful shock therapy that can jolt politicians petrified by special interests.

In the case of bilingual education, Mr. Unz is busting up a decade of legislative gridlock. The idea that children might be better off learning in a language other than English was another of those well-intentioned bad ideas that flowed from the moral success of the civil-rights movement. But evidence soon accumulated that the program helped everyone but children. By 1987 California’s legislature had let the Bilingual-Bicultural Education Act expire.

Yet nothing changed. Educators had created another claim on taxpayer money and weren’t about to give it up. Liberal pols couldn’t admit their appeals to ethnic solidarity came at a cost to kids. Reformers couldn’t budge a state legislature beholden to the teachers union.

Enter Mr. Unz, inspired by a grassroots rebellion of minority parents who want their children to learn in English. One father is suing Oakland’s schools so his five-year-old African-American son can escape a bilingual program that in practice means he hears mostly Cantonese. Mr. Unz read about such cases and shrewdly made his own cause multiethnic. One of his allies now is Jaime Escalante, the teaching star portrayed in the movie “Stand and Deliver.”

Mr. Unz can’t fairly be typecast as anti-immigrant. He (and this column) opposed Proposition 187 in 1994, when it was conservative dogma–and he predicted the anti-Republican backlash it would later inspire among Hispanics. That opposition gives him the moral credentials now to argue that the immigrants he welcomes to America must assimilate into American culture.

His former liberal allies in the Proposition 187 fight have fallen back on their “diversity” clich?s. That’s especially true of professional Latino lobbies such as the National Council of La Raza. They can’t seem to figure out that by resisting such basic assimilation standards as English they play into the hands of those who oppose all Hispanic immigration.

Liberal “multiculturalists” and conservative opponents of immigration are thus mirror-image allies. They both prize their own ethnic tribe above the assimilationist ethic, as John Miller writes in his valuable new book, “The Unmaking of Americans.” Pat Buchanan and California Rep. Xavier Becerra are two sides of the same sectarian politics.

Which is why 227 is under attack from both the left and right. Democrats are happy to play racial politics as a way to strengthen their hold on Hispanic voters. This explains President Clinton’s opposition, even as his administration concedes that current bilingual programs are a failure.

Most Republicans also know better but fear the political impact of telling the truth. California GOP Chairman Michael Schroeder is opposing 227, though the party rank-and-file has endorsed it. The only national Republican who’s stumped for Mr. Unz here is Steve Forbes, who also opposed 187 back when it mattered. Because of his past immigration controversies, current GOP California Gov. Pete Wilson would only hurt 227 by backing it. He’s mostly kept quiet.

So has this year’s GOP candidate for governor, Attorney General Dan Lungren. A conservative in the Jack Kemp mold, Mr. Lungren waited to endorse 187 until the day before it passed. This week he praised Mr. Unz personally but came out against 227 on the grounds that it would supersede local control.

He must mean local officials like those who insist they won’t enforce 227 even if it passes. “I will fight this as far and as fully as we can, as we did with 187,” San Francisco Superintendent Bill Rojas told the San Francisco Chronicle.

It’s fine to believe in local control, but this is Bull Connor-style resistance. Public school governance has become a preserve of unions and administrators who are impervious to parental pressure. In a state where a quarter of public school kids don’t know English, the state government arguably has an obligation to intervene.

The good news is that the voters seem ready to pass 227 despite this official opposition. The latest poll shows support among two-thirds of all voters, including 48% of Hispanics.

While the pols play their sectarian games, average voters seem to appreciate the unifying consequences of a common language.

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